I’m confused why people are so bad at dating. It seems to me like there are tons of $20 bills lying on the ground which no one picks up.
For example, we know that people systematically choose unattractive images for their dating profiles. Sites like PhotoFeeler cheaply (in some cases, freely) resolve this problem. Since photo quality is one of the strongest predictors of number of matches, you would think people would be clamoring to use these sites. And yet, not many people use them.
In the off-line dating world, it surprises me how few self-help books are about dating. Right now, zero of the top 10 Amazon best-selling self-help books are about dating. I see only two dating books in the top 50: The 5 Love Languages and Super Attractor. To the extent these books exist, they often have little to no empirical support; my guess is that horoscopes are the most frequently read source of dating advice. Evidence-based books like Mate are less widely read.
Possible Solution #1: Inadequate Equilibria
It might be that we are in an Inadequate Equilibrium. Eliezer proposes three general ways in which seeming inefficiencies can exist:
1. Cases where the decision lies in the hands of people who would gain little personally, or lose out personally, if they did what was necessary to help someone else;
This doesn’t seem very compelling in the case of online dating. Anyone could choose to use PhotoFeeler for themselves, for example.
2. Cases where decision-makers can’t reliably learn the information they need to make decisions, even though someone else has that information
Again, this isn’t compelling. PhotoFeeler clearly lets you know what other people think of your photos.
3. Systems that are broken in multiple places so that no one actor can make them better, even though, in principle, some magically coordinated action could move to a new stable state.
Regressions done by Hitsch et al., as well as common sense, indicate that improving your own photos, even if you do nothing else or nothing else changes about the world, does make a significant impact in your likelihood of finding a good partner. So again, this seems uncompelling.
Possible Solution #2: Free Energy
I’ve seen a number of novice rationalists committing what I shall term the Free Energy Fallacy, which is something along the lines of, “This system’s purpose is supposed to be to cook omelettes, and yet it produces terrible omelettes. So why don’t I use my amazing skills to cook some better omelettes and take over?”
And generally the answer is that maybe the system from your perspective is broken, but everyone within the system is intensely competing along other dimensions and you can’t keep up with that competition. They’re all chasing whatever things people in that system actually pursue—instead of the lost purposes they wistfully remember, but don’t have a chance to pursue because it would be career suicide. You won’t become competitive along those dimensions just by cooking better omelettes. – An Equilibrium of No Free Energy
It’s possible that people don’t actually want to find good mates. Maybe they just want to seem as though they are trying to find good mates, or something. This would be consistent with dating advice being so evidence-free: people really want to signal that they care about finding good mate (which they can do by leaving a copy of Cosmo conspicuously out on their coffee table), but don’t actually care about finding a good mate (so they don’t care if Cosmo actually has good advice).
I’m pretty skeptical of this. If I was forced to guess only one thing that humans actually, really, really really really, valued as a terminal goal, “find a good mate” would be pretty high on my list of guesses. It’s the thing we have millions of years of evolutionary pressure towards prioritizing. I might even go so far as to suggest that all the other markets which are efficient are efficient largely because of people’s desire for romantic success: quants find arbitrage opportunities in the stock market because they hope that this financial success will translate into romantic success, etc.
So why is it that people – including people who devote their lives to finding arbitrage opportunities – leave so many metaphorical $20 bills on the ground when they start dating?
I remain confused.