[30 April 2014]
After reading Paul Oyer’s Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating, I’m not certain if the title is accurate. It could just as easily read Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Online Dating I Learned from Economics. Either way, the book is smart, oddly practical, and written by someone with a nice sense of humor.
Oyer sets out to prove that “no place has more economics than online dating sites” and hopes that by the end of the book audiences “will be seeing economics everywhere in today’s modern information economy.” Oyer has the credentials to make these claims. He’s the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Labor Economics and a professor of economics at Stanford. Perhaps equally important for this book, he’s also a recently divorced 40-something, and the examples from the book include many of his own experiences.
The ten chapters in the book include “Thick Versus Thin Markets: Big Fish or Big Pond”, “Signaling: Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” and “Positive Assortative Mating: Why Everyone in the Office and the Neighborhood Is Similar”.
Some of the points Oyer makes seem commonsensical (at least after he explains them). People lie on their résumés, and people lie when creating their online profiles. Oyer calls this cheap talk and notes that this is not limited to individuals; corporations and political campaigns are also often guilty of cheap talk. Why? According Oyer there is logic to this, and in certain cases, Oyer maintains that we don’t really have a choice: “In some situations, you have almost no choice but to lie or exaggerate about yourself because, given that other people lie and exaggerate, people are going to discount what you say.”
Other points Oyer makes may not be things everyone wants to think about. In “Search Theory: Deciding When to Settle”, Oyer notes that compromising or settling is necessary when house hunting, but maintains it is also necessary when looking for a mate. The more difficult question is knowing when to settle, and evidently people aren’t very good at settling—on anything. His conclusion “Because the act of searching is costly, people often cannot find exactly what they are looking for even when it is out there somewhere. As a result, many perfectly eligible and attractive people are single, some great potential employees are unemployed, and some really nice houses sit empty and unsold.”
Settling probably doesn’t seem like the most romantic of notions, but Oyer compares online dating to a slew of not-so-romantic things; these include shopping for a used car, choosing a credit card, assigning shifts at the supermarket, and going to the mall. Don’t expect any Cinderella stories here. Oyer’s use of terms like “settling”, “utility”, and “market” make clear that online dating can be seen as a type of business transaction. After all, the book ends with the line: “And may all your adventures maximize your utility.”
In the last chapter, Oyer addresses the economics of marriage and/or long term relationships. After noting that technologies have made taking care of a home much easier and explaining the economics of birth control and abortion, he concludes “The household is an economic unit like a company or a society. People bargain with each other and look out for their own interests, even at the expense of family members.”
Oyer is nothing if not honest. Some of his advice is almost cringe-worthy, such as when he suggests at the end of chapter nine, “The Return to Skills: Education and Good Looks Pay”, “Women—make yourself beautiful; men—get a raise”. He’s also candid about his own online dating history—including the difficulty of dating honestly while being separated but not yet divorced. Nor does he always have easy answers; his dating advice at the end of that chapter is simply to move your divorce along as quickly as possible.
Still, Oyer is a fun writer, and one with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He wonders how people survived without microwaves, suggests burning piles of money to prove you are wealthy, and refers to himself frequently as a balding economist—albeit one with some standards. When taking us through his screening process, he notes “The next one could not spell and began each part of her description with ‘Well…’ Sorry, but even balding economists can afford to be a little picky.”
It’s also easy to see the teacher in Oyer. The chapters are easy-to-read, with simple to-the-point language. He brings in economic theorists and makes pop culture references with equal ease. Just in case someone misses something (or skims a section), Oyer closes all the chapters with four takeaways: “A Key Insight from Economics”, “A Valuable or Important Imperial Finding by Economists Who Study…”, “When It Comes to [insert chapter theme here] Dating Is a Lot Like”, and “Dating Advice”.
Also in a teacherly fashion, Oyer wants people to learn something from his book: how to approach the online dating market and ultimately be successful in this market (and perhaps a few other markets, as well). By comparing online dating to less mysterious and confusing (and yes, less romantic) things, he may just have succeeded.