Supply, Demand, and Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2012 BY danariely

Want to know how to ensure your wife or girlfriend’s satisfaction with her Valentine’s Day present? Over breakfast, casually mention that recent census data shows women outnumber men in your area, and that men are apparently a scarce commodity (or maybe just the first part).

Why would this matter? Well, according to a recent study from the University of Minnesota, perceived gender ratio affects economic behavior in both men and women. Regarding your sweetheart’s present, after female participants read an article describing a dearth of men in the local population, the amount of money they expected a man to spend on dinner, Valentine’s Day, and engagement rings decreased (and likewise, they expected men to woo them more lavishly when there were reportedly more men than women).

This sort of news had a complementary effect on men. When male participants read an article indicating an excess of men in the population and then answered questions about monthly spending habits, they reported they would borrow 84% money more and save 42% less. When the article reversed the ratio, men accordingly borrowed less and saved more. (Unlike men, women’s spending habits were not altered by the reported population inequality, only their expectations were.)

Moreover, an apparent discrepancy in gender was all it took to increase men’s willingness to make financially riskier decisions. In another experiment, participants were shown photos of groups of people: some where women outnumbered men, some where men outnumbered women, and some with an equal number of each. Afterwards, experimenters asked participants whether they would rather be paid the following day, or wait for a greater amount in a month. The result? After viewing photographs graced by fewer women, men were much more likely to choose $20 the next day over waiting a few weeks for $30.

As it turns out, researchers discovered that these results are born out in real populations too: In Columbus, Georgia, there are 1.18 single men for every single woman, and the average consumer debt is $3,479 higher than it is 100 miles away in Macon, where there are 0.78 single men for every woman.

So for those of you who are single and looking to find a match, here’s a little help from the US Census Bureau. Ladies, you’ll want to try your luck in the blue areas; guys, your best bet is in the red.


Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day.

Online Dating: Avoiding a bad Equilibrium

September 20, 2010 BY danariely

When going on a first date, we try to achieve a delicate balance between expressing ourselves, learning about the other person, but also not offending anyone — favoring friendly over controversial – even at the risk of sounding dull. This approach might be best exemplified by an amusing quote from the film Best in Show: “We have so much in common, we both love soup and snow peas, we love the outdoors, and talking and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.”  Basically, in an attempt to coordinate on the right dating strategy, we stick to universally shared interests like food or the weather. It’s easy to talk about our views on mushroom and anchovies, and the topic arises easily over dinner at a pizzeria – still, that doesn’t guarantee a stimulating conversation, and certainly not a real measure of our long-term romantic match.

This is what economists call a bad equilibrium – it is a strategy that all the players in the game can adopt and converge on – but it is not a desirable outcome for anyone.

We decided to look at this problem in the context of online dating. We picked apart emails sent between online daters, prepared to dissect the juicy details of first introductions. And we found a general trend supporting the idea that people like to maintain boring equilibrium at all costs: we found a lot of people who may, in actuality, have interesting things to say, but presented themselves as utterly insipid in their written conversations. The dialogue was boring, consisting mainly of questions like, “Where did you go to college?” or “What are your hobbies?” “What is your line of work?” etc.

We sensed a compulsion to avoid rocking the boat, and so we decided to push these hesitant daters overboard. What did we do? We limited the type of discussions that online daters could engage in by eliminating their ability to ask anything that they wanted and giving them a preset list of questions and allowing them to ask only these questions.  The questions we chose had nothing to do with the weather and how many brothers and sisters they have, and instead all the questions were interesting and personally revealing (ie., “how many romantic partners did you have?”, “When was your last breakup?”, “Do you have any STDs?”, “Have you ever broken someone’s heart?”, “How do you feel about abortion?”). Our daters had to choose questions from the list to ask another dater, and could not ask anything else. They were forced to risk it by posing questions that are considered outside of generally accepted bounds. And their partners responded, creating much livelier conversations than we had seen when daters came up with their own questions. Instead of talking about the World Cup or their favorite desserts, they shared their innermost fears or told the story of losing their virginity. Everyone, both sender and replier, was happier with the interaction.

What we learned from this little experiment is that when people are free to choose what type of discussions they want to have, they often gravitate toward an equilibrium that is easy to maintain but one that no one really enjoys or benefits from.  The good news is that if we restrict the equilibria we can get people to gravitate toward behaviors that are better for everyone (more generally this suggests that some restricted marketplaces can yield more desirable outcomes).

And what can you do personally with this idea?  Think about what you can do to make sure that your discussions are not the boring but not risky type.  Maybe set the rules of discussion upfront and get your partner to agree that tonight you will only ask questions and talk about things you are truly interested in.  Maybe you can agree to ask 5 difficult questions first, instead of wasting time talking about your favorite colors.  Or maybe we can create a list of topics that are not allowed.  By forcing people to step out of their comfort zone, risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more.

Dear Irrational (Does it Pay to Play Hard to Get?)

August 25, 2009 BY danariely

Dear Irrational,

I recently met a great guy – let’s call him George – and now I can’t stop thinking about him. Though we’ve only been on a couple dinner dates, he’s officially won me over.

Now here’s my problem: Smitten as I am, I’m ready to hop into bed with George this very minute, but I’m not sure that’s the best idea. After all, there must be some reason that all those books and magazines (not to mention my mother) champion the make-him-wait rule. But does it really work? I’ve never followed it in the past, but then, I can’t say I have the best dating track record either.

What do you think? Should I play hard to get, or no? Help!




Dear Unsure,

Your mother is right: making the guy sweat a little (no, not like that) is in your best interest if you want to maximize the chances f a long term relationship. The reason lies in cognitive dissonance, which refers to what we do when our beliefs and actions misalign: Can’t change the cold, hard facts? Then change your beliefs!

The classic experiment here comes from psychologists Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith, who had participants perform a boring task and then paid them either $20 or $1 to convince someone else that the task had been great fun. Everyone then rated the task, with the result that the $1 participants rated the task more positively than did the $20 crew. While the $20 group could explain away the dissonance between their action (“I told someone the task was riveting”) and their belief (“It actually bored me to tears”) via money (“I was paid to promote the task”), the $1 individuals could not because they could not justify misleading others for such a small amount of money– so they changed their initial belief (“I must really like the task, to have promoted it”) and they ended up rating the task more positively.

To give you an example that is closer to our social life, look at fraternities: loyalty to frats increases with the amount of hazing, since pledges tell themselves, “I did a lot of embarrassing stuff for my frat – it must really matter to me.”

So, going back to your dilemma, Unsure, cognitive dissonance suggests that if you really want a guy, you have to create a dissonance for him, so that he will say, “Wow, if I put in all this effort for the woman – I must love her.”

This means that instead of putting out early, you have George pursue you. Instead of splitting the check, you let him pick up the entire tab. Instead of calling him up and suggesting dates, you leave the calling and planning up to him. In other words, make him work, and he will rationalize it by deciding he loves you.

Good luck.

Irrationally yours,


p.s please don’t tell George about my advice, and who gave it to you


August 15, 2009 BY danariely

It’s time for another Predictably Irrational Short Story! This one is a love story the beautifully demonstrates some of the principles of discussed in Predictably Irrational about decision making applied to dating, again written by one of my students at Duke. It’s called “The Dating Game” and you can find it here.

A joke from my father (don’t blame me)

March 5, 2009 BY danariely

A 70-year-old, extremely wealthy widower, shows up at the Country Club with a beautiful and very sexy 25 year-old blond who knocks everyone’s socks off and who hangs over Bob’s arm and listens intently to his every word.

His buddies at the club are all aghast. At the very first chance, they corner him and ask, “Bob, how’d you get the trophy girlfriend?” Bob replies, “Girlfriend? She’s my wife!” They’re knocked over, but continue to ask, “So, how’d you persuade her to marry you?”

“I lied about my age,” Bob replies, “I told her I was 90!!”

Also see this:

Valentine’s Blog

February 14, 2009 BY danariely

Given Valentine’s Day and the state of the market, let’s consider which approach to finding love is better: 1) the free market system where everyone can find their own date and figure out who and what is best for themselves; or 2) a regulated market where your parents, family, or perhaps some kind of matchmaker have a say. This may be an impractical question these days (how many people let their mothers set them up?), but this is still a complex problem that’s been discussed for millennia, without any apparent solution. But here’s a boon for anyone who is starting to lose hope of finding love: a study that shows the importance of commitment to happiness.

The world of dating has grown increasingly complex, we have online dating, speed dating, casual dating, traditional dating (I think it’s still around anyway), and so on. The problem is, that with so many options, commitment to a relationship becomes difficult—you never know if there’s someone more perfect for you just around the corner. In a world where switching partners is difficult, people are likely to hang on and attempt to work things out. But in a world where it’s easy, or seems easy, to switch partners, people are likely to give up when things first go wrong. And yet, the ever-present temptation that there is someone out there who is better can be incredibly devastating to our personal happiness.

So we have to wonder then, how important is commitment? Dan Gilbert and Jane Ebert conducted a study with this question in mind using photography. In their experiment, they gave students a short course in taking black and white photos and taught them how to develop their pictures in the darkroom. Half the people were told that they could pick one of their pictures to be professionally enlarged and developed, which they could then keep. The other half were told to pick two pictures to keep, and that they could change their minds until the minute that the film was sent off. These people had a continual temptation to change their choices, so they had time to consider and reconsider which of their prints were the best.
Later, each participant was asked to rate their level of happiness with their prints. Guess who was happier, those who chose a photo and stuck with it, or those who had flexibility and time to make the perfect selection? As it turned out, the people who could alter their choices were much less happy than the first group. The principle behind this is that when we have to deal with a certain reality, we get used to it and often come to prefer it. But if we think we can change it, we don’t force ourselves to cope, so inevitable imperfections—whether in people or in pictures—can drive us to distraction. And the same thing happens with marriage. If we think of marriage as an open market and always have half an eye on other options, we’ll be less likely to be happy.