Sunday, May 4, 2008

Gaming It

MG forwarded me an article which pissed me off. Not because I didn't love it (I did) but because I wished I had written about the topic first.

The Eligible-Bachelor Paradox and how economics and game theory explain the shortage of available, appealing men, by Mark Gimein.

In countless conversations (with others and with myself), I have wondered why I know SO many attractive, intelligent, funny, successful, eligible single women, while the commensurately eligible male counterparts seemed to be elusively rare - so rare that rather than talk about them as a group, I end up trying to NAME them, and it always ends up being a distressingly short list. I've wondered at this phenomena both as a married woman, and as a newly single woman. And not just in NYC. I've thought this in DC, Beijing, Hong Kong.

While I've wondered whether this was an objectively real and measurable "truth", I've tried to explain it in different ways. Remember that episode of Seinfeld where George discovers that club where all the gorgeous models hang out? I've tried to explain it by pointing to networks. The network of my friends (and all their respective networks) are mostly comprised of "similar" people. And in our cases, that means women with whom we feel some sort of connection and solidarity and similarity. So perhaps it's as simple as not yet tapping into the appropriate network of attractive, smart, funny, accomplished single men?

From a sheer physical attractiveness standpoint, I have also tried to explain it by pointing to the simple fact that women have an easier time improving upon nature. Makeup, clothes, and hair can all be altered to accentuate the positive. But these are tools less easily leveraged by men.

But the first few sentences of Gimein's article lay waste to all my theories (hopes?) that perhaps this phenomena is NOT real, and only perceived to be real:


"It is a truth universally acknowledged that the available, sociable, and genuinely attractive man is a character highly in demand in social settings. ... The shortage of appealing men is a century-plus-old commonplace of the society melodrama...The problem of the eligible bachelor is one of the great riddles of social life. Shouldn't there be about as many highly eligible and appealing men as there are attractive, eligible women? Actually, no."


His explanation for this numerical imbalance rests on the recognition that in a marriage proposal, it's the woman who chooses. Yes, traditionally, it's the man who asks the question, but it's the woman who chooses to be asked and then chooses again to say yes or no. But the primary "choice" here, is the woman's choice to receive the question in the first place. After all, it's fairly rare that a man asks and the woman says "no." (I'm eliminating from this discussion those completely random proposals which come out of the blue - because I mean really, those are just weird.)

Over-simplified, yes, but I accept this. Whether simply by the virtue of staying in a dating relationship, working or contributing to the work of making the relationship satisfying, or actively dropping hints, promises, threats, ultimatums, there is a choice demonstrated - the choice to receive a proposal if/when it is offered - making women far less passive in this scenario than it might, at the most superficial level, appear.

Gimein likens this search of marriage partners to an auction. (And this is where we get to the modified game theory that his subtitle promises us.)

He says that in this "auction," there are women who are more confident of their prospects (because of looks, social ability, or any other reason). He refers to this group as "strong bidders." Now, one would think that the "strong bidders" would consistently win in this auction paradigm. But apparently, according to game theory, it's the "weak bidders" who more often win, because they bid more aggressively as compared to the "strong bidders" who hold out and wait for the "perfect" prospect.


This is how you come to the Eligible-Bachelor Paradox, which is no longer so paradoxical. The pool of appealing men shrinks as many are married off and taken out of the game, leaving a disproportionate number of men who are notably imperfect (perhaps they are short, socially awkward, underemployed). And at the same time, you get a pool of women weighted toward the attractive, desirable "strong bidders."


Obviously, this is an almost egregious over-generalization and over-simplification: I know many "strong bidders" who are/were also aggressive bidders in this paradigm. But I only have to take stock of my many, fabulous, "strong bidder" single female friends to think that perhaps there might also be something to it.

My conclusions?

On one hand, this tells me I should break my man-fast damn soon and get out there and start aggressively bidding, 'cause the pickings are only going to get leaner.

But on the other hand, in Gimein's own words: Game theory deals with how best to win the prize, but it works only when you can decide what's worth winning.

So maybe there's another element at play here. Maybe my "strong bidder" friends who have been happily married for years share an additional trait - an ability to see through their plentiful potential options to recognize a prize worth winning when he's standing right before them, flaws and all.

1 comment:

Robespierre said...

I think I can confirm this from the guy's perspective as well. We all have noticed the fact that getting dates is so easy in one's thirties as compared to before. I always presumed that it was simply the fact that since girls don't generally date younger guys, our odds increased as we got a little older. But perhaps what we were seeing is that due to the phenomena described in the article, you are (unbeknownst to yourself) forced to lower your standards if you want to pair up. And so that means guys like me have a shot at girls like you in our thirties when we would have been shot down mercilessly in our early twenties. If I only knew then what I know now ....