Whilst we may like to think of dating and romance as a spontaneous and uncalculated affair, in reality it can be boiled down to a simple matter of demand and supply. After all, economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources and the ‘perfect partner’ or ‘soul-mate’ is the ultimate scarce resource.
Some theories actually consider dating to be an example of cost-benefit analysis where the costs and benefits for settling for an individual are considered against the costs and benefits of continuing to search for someone better. Meanwhile others suggest that the success of dating is simply based on investment and the potential return of said investment, where dating only yields a return of a long-term relationship when an individual carries out sufficient investment of both time and money.
In most economic markets, demand is a concept controlled by the consumer whilst supply is offered by firms. However, in the world of dating, demand is a mutual construct which must be possessed by both parties. Arguably, the nearest comparison is the labour market where the unemployed demand jobs whilst, equally, firms demand employees of a certain calibre. This gives rise to a concept of ‘romantic unemployment’ where individuals find themselves without a partner as they do not have the objective to satisfice but rather maximise their chances of finding ‘the one’ – thus spending long periods of time single. Many people turn down potential partners in the hope that someone better will come along – similar behaviour to those in search of work who are unwilling to settle for a job that they are over-qualified for or an employer who believes that a more suitable employee could be next in the interview room. Holding out for a potential ‘Mr Right’, however, carries an opportunity cost which increases as time goes on, as the ability to have a family decreases with time along with the pool of potential partners shrinking as others get into relationships. This is not dissimilar to the opportunity cost of remaining unemployed due to a fall in income and loss of employable skills. Long term romantic unemployment is rarely a positive experience and hence, once the costs of searching for that special someone outweigh the benefits of finding said person, individuals often settle in less than perfect relationships.
In order to reduce this ‘romantic unemployment’ gap many are turning to dating websites, much akin to the concept of a job centre. In fact, 20% of all relationships now start online and 7% of marriages that took place during 2015 were due to the success of online dating. The draw of online dating is that it reduces the search costs of being single and so has become a popular choice for those who are struggling to find a partner in a more conventional way. In some cases, online dating has gone further than just opening up the market for potential partners but also allows for users to signal their preferences – allowing the market to run more efficiently and ultimately leading to a more efficient allocation of matches.
A prime example is exhibited by a Korean dating site which uses the concept of a ‘virtual rose’ to send signals to users when another user is particularly interested in them. By limiting the number of virtual roses that each user can send artificial scarcity is introduced, thus increasing their value and indicating to the recipient that the sender sees them as a potential match. By increasing the value of messages sent on dating sites, the recipients are much more likely to respond – 18% of the time as supposed to 15% and up to twice as likely for some demographics.
Forget blind dates and swiping right on Tinder, perhaps an understanding of the way in which the market for potential partners works, and therefore how it can be manipulated, may be just what is needed to break out of romantic unemployment or the cycle of serial dating and into a successful long-term relationship?