Columns Relationships

Everyday Economics: Dating and the Commons

Online dating is hell. It is genuinely one of the most stressful, complicated and volatile experiences that I have ever willingly signed myself up for. And I don’t even have to deal with men.

In my mind, dating apps are now synonymous with the brilliant and mildly concerning Black Mirror episode Hang the DJ, in which the two protagonists are given a fixed length of time to live out their relationship before being forced to move onto the next. I won’t spoil the outcome, but God forbid multiple miniature versions of myself ever end up trapped inside a simulation which equates a successful match to escaping from the simulation itself. At this point, there would be millions of me stuck inside some never-ending romantic hell.

Hang the DJ does offer some humanity to online dating, which is for the most part a reductively robotic experience. Conveniently for this column, however, current online dating does not have such emotional nuances, and can be broken down by – you guessed it – economic theories.

When it comes to dating, we’re all concerned with maximising our chances of potential ‘matches’. Within apps such as Tinder, we begin to make our own society: a society of (probably) single people. And within this society, we all share certain resources – patience and users’ time among many others – that are accessible to all members; these resources are ‘the commons.’ The problem with the commons is that, acting in self-interest, users often over-exploit shared resources to gain personal advantages and, in doing so, harm the common good. In relation to dating apps, this involves the overuse of the app and its messaging services to the extent that a potential partner becomes so discouraged and frustrated that they delete their account.

According to Ogury, 85% of the overall UK’s dating app user base is male; it’s therefore a probable assumption that the most overused common resource is the waning attention and patience of the other 15%. That’s a result of a compilation of individuals acting in their self-interest at the detriment of the common good – and in the long run, their own. The fewer potential partners, the less likely any will find a match. Competition between men is high enough; what is least needed is a further widening in the gender ratio.

But how could the overuse of patience and attention be reduced when online dating apps encourage individuality? In the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, we might just find ourselves an answer. 

Russell Crowe plays the role of John Nash, a young economist who developed the concept of what is now called the Nash equilibrium. In the film, he attempts to visualise the maximum payoff each of his friends can receive in approaching a group of women; in this scenario, all find themselves most attracted to a glamorous blonde. Whilst attempting to form a strategy, one recalls the lessons of Adam Smith (a Scottish economist often referred to as the father of capitalism), in which he quotes that ‘individual ambition serves the common good’ – an overly wordy way of saying every man for himself. Nash, instead, chuckles and retorts that ‘Adam Smith needs revision’. He explains that if all attempt to go for the blonde, they will ‘block’ each other. In the wake of this inevitable failure, they will turn to her friends and receive nothing more than a cold shoulder, offended at the idea of being second choice. But if no one goes for the blonde, they avoid both of these rejections and, assuming the women are indeed interested, will each find success. The optimum outcome arises not from Adam Smith’s individualism, but from the individual acting out of his own self-interest and the common good. Coordination, then, must be considered the key. 

In order to be completely transparent, I should probably make clear that this example is a little flawed and does not demonstrate Nash equilibrium; there is a possible scenario in which one player decides to switch to the blonde, improving his own outcome while leaving the others unaffected. To be at Nash equilibrium, no individual would be able to change his decision, whilst all other players remain constant, without worsening his prospects. The idea is an interesting one, however, and can be applied to the idea of the commons on modern dating apps. If account holders’ attention is overused, the likelihood is that they will eventually abandon the app, leaving all suitors less likely to find their potential match. Just like Nash believes his friends would block each other by all approaching the blonde, the 85% of men tend to crowd each other out by sending overly persistent or inappropriate messages, eroding the patience of their targets and ultimately causing overall losses to the common interest.

If coordination were possible, an agreement between all users to send fewer and higher-quality messages would generate the greatest benefit to the dating pool as a whole. That’s not to discourage some of the most disastrously bizarre Tinder messages, which have provided hours of entertainment to users and meme pages across the globe. (There is, of course, a limit. To pass this boundary is detrimental for all single people out there.) So, for the sake of any poor soul at the end of their tether and any relatively sane and well-intentioned male who is – due to the overwhelming volume of competition and abysmal chat-up lines – constantly aired, I’d suggest we all start viewing dating apps as a way not just to reach our own love-life goals, but for others to find theirs.

Reign in your messaging intensity. Consider whether your words might be deemed inappropriate or offensive. And, in a world full of Adam Smiths, be a John Nash.

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Flora is studying French and Italian at Christ Church. She would like someone to believe her when she says the scar on her knee came from a shark and hopes this biography will make it happen.