Dating as an auction

Frequently Tyler Cowen’s dating commentary is the most entertaining aspect of Marginal Revolution. In one of today’s posts, he compares dating to auction strategies:

In terms of dating, if you run an English auction you go out with many people, if not simultaneously then relatively closely bunched in time, and you stick with the one who offers the most. If you run a Dutch auction you signal clearly your standards (lowering the standards over time if need be), and stick with the first person who bites.

It’s an interesting model. I am suspicious of the “Dutch auction” approach in that it’s more difficult to evaluate prospects that way. (This may be what Cowen has in mind when he says “hidden but not too hidden qualities encourage English auctions.”) On the other hand, it’s easier for shy people who might have difficulty with the “English auction” style. Of course, my own forays into dating have been too sporadic to be described by anything resembling a strategy.

12 thoughts on “Dating as an auction

  1. Mason

    Hmmmm… I think my sample size is too small to indicate whether I have any “strategy” beyond wanting to spend time with people I like. (I suppose this is a decent enough “strategy” in principle, but it’s hardly specific enough to warrant that term.) And I definitely wouldn’t be using the English strategy. It seems so impersonal and I don’t think I would like myself very much if I did that.

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    Really? I would think that the English auction is less impersonal than the Dutch. In the former case one gets a lot more one-on-one interaction with each prospective mate.

  3. Justin

    I find the auction analogy as presented to be deeply flawed. Auctions are one-sided interactions between a seller and a group of potential buyers; dating is an N-body problem where all participants are both buyers and sellers. I wouldn’t be surprised if this type of thing has been studied in economics somewhere, but it’s no auction as I understand the term. :-)

  4. Mason

    There are mathematical problems related to it, and they (or at least some of them) are considered as auction problems.
    AG: The thing I find impersonal is the idea of ‘testing the waters’ with multiple people rather than really focusing on one person.

  5. Arcane Gazebo

    Justin: Does that change the strategic considerations? It seems to me that from an individual perspective it is still a question of how to approach multiple bids for his/her attention. The added complication is how one values the various bids.
    Mason: The way I see it, in both approaches there’s a phase of evaluating the various candidates before the endpoint of dating exclusively. In the “Dutch auction” case this just occurs before going on any dates. It seems backwards to me to say that the approach where evaluation is done at a greater remove is the more personal one.

  6. Lemming

    Aha! I see what’s going on here. AG has multiple physics hotties all up ons, and is looking for a little bit of justification before he dives in.
    Here’s some “justification”:
    What’s better than a threesome? A *foursome*. (As a general rule, (N+1)some >> (N)some)

  7. Mason

    AG: Sorry, I’m not with you here. If I am paying attention to one person, it seems to me that that person gets more personal attention than if I’m paying attention to several. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable seriously considering multiple people “at once” (including near-simultaneous as “at once,” as mentioned in the original post). I understand that many people do this and that’s perfectly fine. I just would feel very slimy if I did it, so I’d rather do things in series even if it makes life harder for me.

  8. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: I’m not trying to argue with your personal preferences, all I’m trying to say is that I think you’re making the wrong comparison. Remember that the point of the auction is to decide which person to date exclusively, not how to apportion a series of dates. You’re saying that the winner of the Dutch auction gets more personal attention after the auction than the winner of the English auction does before the auction ends. That’s certainly true, but it’s not a fair comparison. The proper comparison is how much personal attention you give to each candidate in the dating pool before you make a selection, and on this measure I think the English auction clearly comes out ahead.
    I’m not saying the English auction is the way everybody should go, I’m just objecting to calling it “impersonal”.

  9. Justin

    AG, I think the two-sidedness definitely changes the strategic considerations. Maybe this is peculiar to ultra-low EQ people like myself, but back when I was dating I was far more concerned with the “seller” side than the “buyer” side of this N-body auction. Evaluating someone else is fairly straightforward; making sure I don’t shoot myself in the foot with poor social skills is the hard part. You see why I think this whole English vs. Dutch debate is complete nonsense… :-)
    I’m also not entirely sure that you and Mason disagree on any level deeper than semantics. Maybe I misunderstood, but my impression was that a few initial dates were entirely compatible with the Dutch auction model – how else are you going to evaluate the “bid”? You date Person1, find incompatibility in one or both directions, date Person2, lather rinse repeat. Is that English or Dutch? To the extent that either model applies to dating (and I’ve made my view abundantly clear by now…) I think they fit that sequence of events equally well.

  10. Arcane Gazebo

    Justin: I certainly have found that evaluating candidates in the dating pool is non-trivial, so maybe that’s why we’re seeing this so differently. The point of an auction (in the usual sense) is to price something whose value is undetermined, so if this wasn’t a big problem for you, I could see this model being irrelevant.
    I will concede that the spectrum of approaches isn’t as bimodal as I have been implying, and most strategies will be somewhere in between the Dutch auction and the English auction. Where I see the distinction is whether the bulk of the evaluation occurs by going on dates or during normal social interaction before asking out or being asked out. It’s the difference between going on dates with a number of different people in order to get to know them, and only asking out people one is already very interested in.
    Of course, as stated earlier my dating experience is fairly limited, and I am mostly coming at this from an analytical perspective rather than an empirical one. So I’m open to the idea that I’m making some bogus distinctions and generally getting things wrong.

  11. Mason

    It did occur to me that we might only be disagreeing on semantics.
    Anyway, I’m not sure I have more to add except to pull something akin to a Fermat. There’s a possibly illustrative example (or possibly completely useless, but that’s the way it goes) to give, but it can’t be on a public web page.

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