Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sex and the Single Web Surfer

"An economist is a man who states the obvious in terms of the incomprehensible."
It's January. Do you know what that means, students? That's right! It's Annual Academic Meeting Time!

From Archeologists to Zoologists at schools from Adelphi to Yuba College, underpaid teachers hoping to bulk up their tenure applications are gathering in drafty Holiday Inns and down-at-the-heels Sheratons across the nation to share the fruits of their lonely labors in the vineyards of Academe.

Not least among these is the American Economics Association. Gathering in Boston last week, this brainy group received several hundred heavily-footnoted papers -- the more footnotes, the better, don't ya' know -- in the never-ending quest by practitioners of "the dismal science" to reduce the complexities of human behavior to one unified, bloodless mathematical equation.

This year, no academic paper is likely to be of less importance, or more stimulating, than "What Makes You Click: An Empirical Analysis of Online Dating," by Gunter J. Hitsch and Ali Hortacsu (Univ. of Chicago) and Dan Ariely (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The entire thing is available on-line here in pdf format, complete with 51 pages, 23 footnotes, 11 charts and graphs, and seven tables.

To research on-line dating habits from an economists' point of view, the authors used "a novel data set obtained from a major online dating service." This enabled the trained economists to identify "mate preferences" and "match outcomes" of men and women who are looking for each other via the Internet.

All of this is economics professor talk for 'we spied on your on-line dating messages and intercepted your emails to each other.' Taking a leaf from George Bush's playbook, they confess to conducting warrantless searches of Internet dating line customers in two American cities, San Diego and Boston.

You think having President Bush monitor your phone calls is bad? Imagine this:
"At each moment in time, we know which profile [dating service users] browse, whether they view a specified photograph, and whether they send or reply to a letter from another user. We also have some limited information on the contents of the e-mails exchanged; in particular, we know whether the users exchanged phone numbers or e-mail addresses."
To this 'data set' the authors then applied -- we're not making this up -- a mathematical equation for determining the "latent utility of man, m, from e-mailing woman, w, related to the eventual utility from forming some sort of match." Or, as we used to say in the olden days before the Internet, they went looking for good pick-up lines.

For those of you who want to try this at home, here's the economic equation for whether you're likely to get laid:
Umw = x'wa + | xw - xm | - ' + B + xw - xm | - Y
+ N/k;l=1 {dmk = uk and dwl = vl ¢ ±kl} . 8 + cm + ²mw .
Really. That's it. The empirical mathematical formula for catching a mate on the Internet.

For the mathematically impaired, the authors do offer a narrative summary of their findings, cushioned in advance with a warning so as not to shock you too much:
"Many readers will find some of our results sobering. Our fate in love and marriage seems to be driven by factors such as looks, height, weight, and income, that are hard or impossible to change."
What else could they have expected? Preferences in breakfast cereals? Paper or plastic users?

There are several equally compelling conclusions these august academic economists reach. They hardly qualify as earth-shattering, however. Among these --
  • "Men appear much more receptive to first-contact e-mails than women." Translation: Men are hornier than women.
  • Women are browsed more often, and receive more first contact e-mails and e-mails containing a phone number or e-mail address than men." Translation: Ditto.
  • Men who "indicate a preference for casual sex are contacted less often than men who state that they are hoping to start a long term relationship. Women, on the other hand, are not negatively affected by such indications." Translation: Men are such pigs.
  • Women prefer tall, rich, well educated men. Men will 'date' any size of woman no matter how short, poor or stupid she may be. Translation: Ditto.
  • "Women seem to have a strong preference for men with equivalent education levels and higher incomes in a mate." Men, on the other hand, will date anything that doesn't have scales and slither through the grass. Translation: Ditto, again.
  • "About 3.5% of dating web site users declare their annual income to be above $200,000, whereas the [general census population] samples contain 0.0% of the population." Translation: Men are such liars.
After thoroughly studying this latest empirical analysis of on-line dating, you might be uncertain whether any of the economists' findings can help your particular situation. Yes, one can:
"Blonde women have a slight improvement in their online 'success' [in attracting men] while women with gray or 'salt and pepper' hair suffer a sizable penalty. ... For women, 'long straight hair' leads to a slight improvement in outcomes, while short hair styles are associated with a moderate decrease in outcomes."
So, there you have it. Real college-trained economists who spy on on-line dating service users conclude: Guys, you really are pigs. And, gals, don't cut your hair. Dye it blonde.

And, be sure to lose those scales and stop slithering through the grass.