[ Question ]

Why are people so bad at dating?

by Xodarap2 min read28th Oct 201958 comments


Relationships (Interpersonal)Planning & Decision-Making

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.


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24 Answers

This seems like a misapplication of the concept of efficiency. The reason that a $20 bill on the ground is surprising is that a single competent agent would be enough to remove it from the world. Similarly, the reason that the efficient market hypothesis is a good approximation isn't that everyone who invests in the stock market is rational; instead, it's that a few highly informed individuals working full time are doing a great job at using up inefficiencies, which causes them to go away.

For every example that you pick, it's certainly true that some people are taking advantage of it (some people are using PhotoFeeler, some people have read Mate, etc), but there's no reason why this would translate into the advantages going away, or would automatically lead to everyone in the dating scene doing it. (Indeed, if someone is highly successful at dating, they're more likely to disappear from the dating scene than to stay in it.) Thus, it's highly disanalogous to efficient markets.

My main point is that humans are frequently unstrategic and bad, absent a lot of time investment and/or selection effects, so there's no particular reason to expect them to be great at dating. It may be true that they're even worse at dating than we would expect, but to draw that conclusion, the relevant comparisons are other things that lay people do in their spare time (ryan_b mentions job search, which seems like a good comparison), while theories assuming perfect rationality are unlikely to be useful.

(Another reason that humans are sometimes good at things is when they were highly useful for reproduction in the ancestral environment. While finding a mate was certainly useful, all of the mentioned examples concern things that have only become relevant during the past few hundred years, so it's not surprising that we're not optimised to make use of them.)

My model for this is that there are strong norms against optimization. Specifically we are supposed to be genuine, which is to say conduct ourselves in dating as we would normally conduct ourselves, such that the people we date get an accurate view of the "real" us. Optimizing your photos and strategizing for maximum number of connections to your profile is not genuine because you wouldn't normally do them, so people don't.

This works for explaining how badly people feel when they try to get dates and fail consistently. For a person following the norm of being genuine, failure to secure a date means that they are genuinely undesirable. I'm confident we'll all agree that such a feeling cuts to the quick.

I think we can also profitably compare the situation of online dating to a similar situation in job seeking. In this case the norms for being honest are much weaker; there is a widespread understanding that this is a game that is routinely strategized on up to and including deception, and being rejected from a job is correspondingly less hurtful than being rejected for dates. Further, there is a huge profusion of resume review, interview prep, and search optimization services. These get routinely used.

The distinction between the interface (resume, job portal, interviews) and the goal (doing work for pay) allows people comfort with being strategic about the former. The norm of being genuine obfuscates this in the case of dating sites and relationships.

My experience is that most of the men I've talked to who are into self-help have at least passing familiarity with the pickup community, and have read at least one book on it. But no one wants to say so and everyone plays dumb. For similar reasons, most of the PUA product sales are eBooks and DVDs(that you don't have to be seen reading/watching and can purchase seperately).

I think one of the things you're seeing is not a lack of desire/demand for consumption, but a lack of desire to advertise that consumption.

The strategies for finding a mate must have been highly optimized by evolution, and that likely included making us hesitant to deviate from evolved strategies. Perhaps in the ancestral environment, dating advice tended to be unhelpful, if not an outright sabotage from the competition, and so we evolved a strong resistance to paying attention to certain kinds of dating advice?

Better strategies don't control much of the variance in outcomes. Photo optimization is a notable exception. Photo optimization is a huge part of what social media even is for young single people.

One possibility is that people actually don't care that much about their dating success. It's not that they're chasing some other orthogonal goal, like seeming "as though they are trying to find good mates" but rather they just actually don't care that much. The large majority of people don't face significant difficulty finding someone to date, and those who do are likely not helped much by these types of aids (eg. they're too ugly; they have no personality; they never talk to people they're interested in).

Another contributing factor is that using these types of tools feels unnatural and inauthentic. People don't want to think that they have to use tools like these to find someone; they should just be themselves.

Generally, I think that it's a variant on the Free Energy hypothesis. However, it's not that there is a side goal that caused them to lose their way, but rather that most people don't care that much. To stretch the omelette metaphor, you think that everyone is running a breakfast restaurant, while most people are cooking an omelette once a month in their home kitchen.

If you think it feels wrong that most people don't care, consider that you care enough about the subject to write a blog post about it so you're not an average person regarding dating.

A major missing piece might be that in the ancestral environment, sexuality and the social sphere were quite different from the modern day. Specifically, (the following points are mere speculation on my part.)

  • Good dating advice was already an established part of the meme pool, while bad dating advice was a memetic weapon of your competitors.
  • People knew everyone in the tribe rather well, so a lot of optimization/deception was simply not an option.
  • It was difficult to hide the fact that you are trying to optimize your sexual life. This effort itself probably signaled against you.
  • Sexuality and normal social relations were much more intertwined, and monogamy not the norm, so you were better off optimizing your social status and popularity as a whole rather than focusing narrowly on attracting specific people with unsustainable signals.
  • Radical self-improvement was probably not all that possible in the first place. When your genetics and the meme pool have had time to evolve for your environment, you have little to gain from trying to consciously improve, and a lot to lose.
  • Religion might also have been a factor in this; If the dating advice was influenced by the tribe’s religion, it is probable that it would optimize for things that are irrelevant or counterproductive.

Aside from these, I think you have not produced much evidence that people are bad at dating. Most of the examples you have provided seem to me to be the kind of things that the public is generally bad at. (Like, the public doesn’t use “evidence-based” books on most any subject.)

The people who date are those that have not found a partner.

The people who go on the "dating scene" are those who cannot find a partner from their existing social circles.

The people who use dating sites are those who have been unable to find a partner in any face-to-face venue.

If people who date are bad at dating, perhaps this is for the same reason that learner drivers are bad at driving.

A simple answer here but the whole concept is rather new to the human species.

My experience: dating is just a wrong way to come to relationship. I have had several relationships and never through proper dating. I read "Mate" and it didn't help.

I've been out of the dating world for a long long time, so take these possibilities with multiple grains of salt:

1) Ambivalence about method. Many date-seekers aren't all that invested (or don't think of themselves as the kind of person who would be invested) in optimizing on those dimensions. Kind of the inverse of your "free energy" theory.

2) Intentional filter for partners who prefer the un-optimized profile.

3) They're getting "enough" matches without further effort in that part of the funnel, and are instead trying to optimize a later step in exploration of compatibility once matched.

How do you measure "success" at dating? It is not clear to me that most people are "bad" at it unless you define the criteria for success.

"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."

I do actually think this is a bigger instance. There are *a lot* of dating resources, websites, blogs, books, methods. Some of these conflict with each other. Sometimes, the specific advice or guideline that a person needs (a dating book might say "be more confident" but this would not help someone who comes off as too cocky on their dating profile or in person). All of this, what we could noise, adds an additional "cost", what we call in economics a "friction cost". Also, to the vast majority of people, picking up a book, admitting that they need to change their own methodology, or doing accurate self-critique (maybe it's not me who is unappealing, maybe my pictures are bad; maybe I'm not coming across well vs WOMEN/MEN's STANDARDS R 2 HIGHH) isn't a small transaction cost at all.

Just like daters don't optimize their photo's with photo-feelers people writing job applications in countries where the job application has a photo don't optimize the photo either.

It seems to me like most people have a strange relationship to photo's that is irrelevant from any concerns about dating.

When self identity is attached to a given problem it's emotionally harder to think sanely about it.

Dating is complicated, and I'm no expert, but some ideas:

1. Using less-than-optimal-but-still-good pictures feels like maybe an unconscious balance involving countersignalling ("I don't need the best possible picture just to get a match"), a desire to make a good first impression ("Wow, you look even better than your picture!" is a better place to start than the opposite, especially since your date is someone who wanted to meet you even when they'd seen only said picture(s)), and a desire to find someone who will be a good match longer term ("will they still like me when I'm at my worst, or older, or just right now? See also the Rita Hayworth quote, "They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me"). I wonder if this is systematically much different on more hookup-oriented vs. relationship-oriented apps and sites?

2. Maximizing matches isn't the goal, finding the right matches in an enormous pool is. Putanumonit did a great piece on this ( https://putanumonit.com/2016/02/03/015-dating_1/ ), maybe some portion of that kind of advice caught on more generally?

3. Norms favoring explicit optimization are squicky in our society. Not just in dating, but in lots of places. See Robin Hanson, http://www.overcomingbias.com/2019/05/simplerules.html for non-dating examples. People want things like plausible deniability, and the need to not constantly optimize everything (Who wants to live their whole life, or relationship, with that kind of pressure? Who can sustain it indefinitely?) and may value partners who feel similarly. In practice this might also be a good way to avoid controlling, demanding jerks on the one hand, and higher-maintenance-than-you-prefer individuals on the other.

Maybe people aren't actually bad at dating, but bad (or willing) at forming and keeping meaningful relationships.

From your question, it feels like you're trying to understand why people are bad at dating (as a means to form meaningful or lasting relationships), but the point is that most people don't want to form meaningful lasting relationships, they just want to quickly or efficiently satisfy their temporary and more superficial needs for bodily and emotional pleasure, and often they can do that without going into "efficiency" about how well they attract dates or partners.

So it's neither solution #1 or #2, but

Solution #3:

People just don't actually care about "mates" in the sense of the type of mating that leads to solid relationships, what they're seeking is to satisfy their own needs.

Well, one very obvious way in which No. 2 is true is that the overwhelming majority of people do not know about things like Photofeeler or Mate, can not infere that it must exist and thus do not do research to find it. Also it is not trivial to distinguish if a given tool / advice is any good.

Another aspect is that your assertion that there is little dating advice out there is just wrong. Just Google "Pick Up" or PUA.

But this probably is only a partial explanation.

I do think Lanrian nailed it: there's no process ensuring fitness selection in dating. On the other hand, we are wasting an opportunity to go meta here: if everyone were capable of mimicking the features of a picture that make it successful, then those features should lose their importance, since they are not reliably signaling that someone is a good mate. If I'm not bright enough to see through a carefully planned image of a smile and a discrete cleavage, I am probably not bright enough to get a similarly attractive picture for myself. Plus, usual cognitive bias: I often mistake how much I like my pics (for the emotions they evoke, for example) with my assessment of their quality - and so irrationally rate them above average. But yeah, now i can use Photofeeler

{evolution + trust: truth, lies and consequences in small tribes + psychological effect of lying} {cons. [c]} = event observed here.

where cons. [c] = unknown constant of proportionality.

Regarding pictures, I think you underestimate the effort required.

You need to get a phone or camera capable of taking good-looking picture, you need someone that is semi-competent at shooting, you need nice looking clothes and a good-enough looking background. These are all things that need to be planned/accounted for. It also takes time.

I don't especially enjoy doing these things, and it took quite a bit of willpower to grab a few nice clothes (I already owned!) and my brother (whom I trust) to go and shoot a few pictures (in my garden).

There is also a diminishing marginal utility of better pictures. If your pictures are ugly blurry messes of you in weird poses, then you stand to gain a lot. If they are already decent, the gain is less.

As others have pointed out, there is a pressure to be "genuine". I think this is not entirely stupid. If someone likes you for your good looking pictures but you never wear these kind of clothes / go to these kind of places, you're may be setting yourself up for failure.

On the other hand, in my own experience, getting matches on apps like Tinder has proved to be the bottleneck — people like me well enough when they meet me, but it's hard to shine whatever they like about me through the pictures. So sweetening the honeypot might not be that bad of a strategy.

Nevertheless, the sentiment that matches obtained through more "genuine" pictures might be better suited might not be wrong. I guess you have to use feedback: are you happy with the matches you get? Why? If you deem they're "low quality", maybe you should sell yourself more. If you have too many shallow matches, maybe you should filter more (but consider that this filtering might eliminate the matches you do find desirable). Said otherwise (a) an increase in quantity is not necessarily an increase in quality and (b) a decrease in quantity is not necessarily an increase in quality. But they might be.

I find it interesting the amount of comments and karma a question about dating has attracted on a rationality website.

We are all biological creatures, however well we think we think and analysis and rationalise.

Pheromones play a bit part in attraction.

Sniffing out a potential mate in a crowd, rather than one-to-one encounters, will have a higher "success" rate.

Hormones a big influence on physiology and behaviour. We don't get a lot of say in that!

Easy answer:

(1) Learning via experience imposes costs (rejection, broken heart, etc.); so learning will be slow and tentative.

(2) People who get good enough (via talent or experience) generally exit the dating market (they find a partner). Whoever is left is either still learning (expensive) or a "player" who prefers serial dating / hooking up to a long-term relationship (LTR). There may be a few people gaming the system by having multiple partners (the stereotypical "alpha"), but I doubt this is a significant fraction.

If you think having a girlfriend is like picking up free money I suspect you've never had one before ;)