wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Tim Harford

The Logic of Life

Speed daters are able to propose to anyone and everyone they meet, and do so electronically after the event, so the embarrassment of rejection is minimised. That should mean that, for most people, a proposal of a date is a simple, uncomplicated expression of approval, and that nobody would propose a date they didn't want accepted or hold back a proposal even though they wanted a date. Belot and Francesconi persuaded one of Britain's largest dating agencies to release information about the activities of 1,800 men and 1,800 women who, over the course of nearly two years, attended eighty-four speed dating events. The researchers were able to see who went to which event, and who proposed to whom.

It won't surprise many people to hear that while women proposed a match to about one in ten of the men they met, men were a bit less choosy and proposed a match to twice as many women, with about half the success rate. Nor will it shock anyone to hear that tall men, slim women, non-smokers and professionals received more offers. But what might raise the odd eyebrow is that it became clear from about two thousand separate speed dates (that's one hundred hours of stilted conversation) that people seemed systematically—and rationally—to change their standards depending on who showed up for the speed date. They didn't seem to be looking for 'the one' at all.

For example, men prefer women who are not overweight. You might think, then, that if on a particular evening twice as many overweight women as usual show up, it will be a night where fewer men propose. Not at all. The men propose just as frequently, so that when twice as many overweight women turn up, twice as many overweight women receive offers of a date.

Similarly, more women prefer tall men than short men, but on evenings where nobody is over six feet, the short guys have a lot more luck. Most people prefer an educated partner, but they will propose to school dropouts if the Ph.D.s stay away. If people really are looking for a partner of a particular type, we would expect them to respond to the absence of such people by getting the bus home with a disappointed shrug, resigning themselves to spending Saturday night in front of the televisIon, and hoping for a better turnout at the next speed date. But that simply isn't what happens. Instead, people respond to slim pickings by lowering their standards.

Note that this experiment doesn't suggest that people aren't fussy: even the men turn down 80 per cent of the women, and the women are choosier still. What it does show is that we are more fussy when we can afford to be and less fussy when we can't: crudely speaking, when it comes to the dating market, we settle for what we can get. Francesconi told me that, according to his estimates, our offers to date a smoker or a non-smoker are 98 per cent a response to—there's no nice way to put this—'market conditions' and just 2 per cent governed by immutable desires. Proposals to tall, short, fat, thin, professional, clerical, educated or uneducated people are all more than nine-tenths governed by what's on offer that night. Only when there is an age mismatch do people even seem to consider waiting for another evening and hoping for a more suitable range of potential mates. Even then, the importance of preferences is still less than the importance of the market opportunity. In the battle between the cynics and the romantics, the cynics win hands down.

'Who you propose a date to is largely a function of who happens to be sitting in front of you,' Francesconi explained to me.