A ‘thick’ market and cost-benefit analysis help avoid ‘romantic unemployment’
There’s no human interaction the Internet can’t make even more alienating, and that goes double for finding a mate. But perhaps one way to make online dating less fraught is to treat it with the kind of clinical detachment that allows humans to becalm their misleading emotions and succeed at related enterprises, from stock trading to hiring the best employees. With Valentine’s Day near, it’s time to bring on the economists.
“Dating markets are a good example of matching markets,” says Alvin Roth, who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2012 for studying such markets. “To work well, they have to overcome all the problems markets have to overcome.”
Mr. Roth has designed markets for matching patients to organ donors, doctors to hospitals, and students to schools. And while he has yet to design an online dating site, he has no shortage of opinions about how to make them more effective.
The first thing an online dating site has to do is create a market that is “thick,” says Mr. Roth. That’s economist-ese for a market that has a lot of people seeking to link up. But getting lots of people to sign up for a dating site is the easy part. Online at least, “there’s always a thick market for people who are looking for someone else,” says Paul Oyer, a colleague of Mr. Roth’s at Stanford University who wrote a widely cited book, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating.”
The popularity of dating apps leads to what economists call “congestion,” says Mr. Roth, which is how economists describe bottlenecks in a system of exchange. To take but one example, congestion is what happens when men spam every woman they match with on Tinder, something women on the app regularly complain about. This behavior is perfectly rational, says Mr. Roth, given the structure of Tinder, which lets you match with people endlessly. Solutions to this kind of message congestion can be found in the concept of “signaling,” which is the study of ways in which actors in any market can be forced to send expensive and therefore honest messages about themselves or their intent.