The Nash equilibrium of online dating

(I got the idea for this post while listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Samy Kamkar.)

Following in the footsteps of Hollywood, let me put together John Nash and dating once again, although in a much less romanticized way.

I used to think that guys are the ones who have a horrible time on online dating websites while girls simply sit back and enjoy the overwhelming attention. But it turns out, I was wrong. Members of both genders are generally utterly disappointed by the outcome of their online dating experiments. So then why isn’t anyone doing something about it? I think it’s because the online dating market has simply settled into a shitty Nash equilibrium. Let me explain. But first, here’s some quick background on Nash equilibrium for you.

Nash equilibrium is an abstract mathematical concept that captures a pattern seen in many social situations. Often people in a society will behave in a way that’s bad for each individual (including themselves), even though, in principle, if they all got together and collectively chose to behave differently, every member of the society would be better off. A modern example is global warming. A simpler but more abstract example is prisoner’s dilemma. In all these cases, a Nash equilibrium is the equilibrium towards which society converges. It is interesting whenever the equilibrium towards which society converges leaves its members much worse off than a state that could have been reached by a collective decision (or an external intervention such as that by a government).

The rule to spot a Nash equilibrium is easy. For each individual in the society under investigation, you need to check the following: assuming every other person’s behaviour remains unchanged, is changing this individual’s behaviour in any way going to make him worse off than what he is now? If the answer is yes for each individual, the present state is a Nash equilibrium.

Next, some background on online dating. In case you don’t know what happens on online dating websites, here’s a quick summary. Guys spam girls with hundreds of average or low quality messages, and girls sift through the deluge of “hey”s and “wanna fuck”s mining for some semblance of attraction. Since this process is frustrating, most messages get ignored. End result: guys frustrated about spamming and not getting replies, and girls frustrated about receiving spam and not having time or patience to reply.

Is this a Nash equilibrium? Consider some guy named Bob trying online dating. Considering that every other guy is sending out hundreds of messages per week, Bob can’t afford to send out the more natural 5-6 per week, unless, of course, he comes up with the magic message that makes every woman swoon. Assuming such messages do not exist, Bob must participate in the spam race to keep a decent standing. Or in other words, if he chooses to deviate from the strategy of spamming a hundred women per week, he will be worse off, implying this is a Nash equilibrium indeed.

Things could be improved if all guys got together and promised each other to only send out 5-6 well thought out messages per week. The girls would be happy to see a neater inbox and would feel motivated to reply to a higher percentage of the messages. This would make both guys and girls happy.

But since such a collective decision is impossible, a better approach is external intervention. If the dating website itself constrained its users to send not more than 10 messages per week, or if it charged money for sending messages, things could improve.

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3 thoughts on “The Nash equilibrium of online dating

  1. Jess says:

    Sparkology is an online dating website for NYC, and it does this. Guys pay ~$3/message, girls pay ~$20/month. They also filter the men by high-status education.

    • OneBigOh says:

      Excellent. My guess is that it should be *clearly* more effective. Not sure how well my guess holds up against reality.

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