Dating in 2018 - The Harsh Truth
We're living in an age of abundance.
Though dating has never been easier, frustrations with it have never been more vocal and finding love has never seemed more treacherous.
When I first moved to London, I was dating online a lot because I didn't have any friends (yep, total loser) but it was an honest-to-God excellent way to meet people that you've never otherwise had the chance to meet. It cuts through the initial stress and chat-up BS, and it's simply a lot of young-Mark-Zuckerberg-inspired-Hot-or-Not fun.
It was entertaining to talk to so many people who wanted to know where I was from, what I did for a living or if I enjoyed being hogtied to the hood of their Honda Accord. That last guy got a laugh instead of a date, but, you get it, the apps provided both socialisation and entertainment.
I've even met my splendid boyfriend, Ben - of CulturedKiwi - on OkCupid. I'm lucky beyond belief and just minimally scarred from my almost two years on "the apps".
Through the lens provided by my background in economics, I became fascinated with the incentive structures that I could see in the dating arena. It was a market system, with supply and demand dynamics, information asymmetry, and buyers and sellers of sex and commitment.
It seemed to me like human nature was laid bare through the wonder of technology. And through my friends' frustrations, the behaviour of the people I met and my own behaviour within the incentives set by the system, I learned a bit about its main drivers.
And it's not always pretty.
Here are some of the harsh truths about dating that I've learned in my two-year experiment.
Gold-digging vs cradle snatching
Girls looking longingly over their shoulder in bikinis.
Guys in suits leaning on supercars.
It's a story as old as nature itself. Everyone is playing the cards they've been dealt as best they can, and it's a bit jarring to see how little we can escape the grip of evolution.
Women prefer mates that are at least equivalent in success and attractiveness to them, but preferably higher - a trait called hypergamy. This is an ancient instinct that women developed because high-status males could get access to more resources and were more apt to protect their children from dangerous conspecifics.
In popular culture, the more avowed representatives of this instinct have been branded as "gold-diggers". That's why the awkward pictures with guys in suits, grabbing their cufflinks to reveal watches are a thing.
This sets up a weird arena of the game theory of dating.
Men get more attractive as their status and earning power increase - mostly with age, while women’s status and earning power do not make them more attractive to the opposite sex. You could even say that many men are hypogamous - they prefer women of equal or lower status. Men, overall, don't much care that you've just made partner in your law firm.
What a woman's rising status and success often means is a narrowing of the pool of men that she actually finds attractive. The more successful a woman is, the fewer men will seem eligible, as they have a low chance of being equivalent or higher in status to her. A highly successful, beautiful woman has slim pickings, while her male equivalent has the world at his feet and can expect to have a revolving door of enthusiastic girls seeking to "mate" with him, and eager to commit to him.
On the other side of the coin, given a choice, men prefer beauty and youth, merely because they reflect health and fertility. It’s not a huge surprise, as women’s fertility is a ticking clock.
So, the winning game regarding self-promotion on the female side is a spin on the ole T&A. It now includes dog face filters, because the anime bug eyes make you look like sexy jailbait, and pictures at festivals in outfits that defy both gravity and the Catholic Church.
This is the evolutionary game that we are all in: women's game is an intense but short-lived fire (you just don't look the same in hotpants at 45) and men's game is mostly on a steady growth trajectory until their middle and even old age.
Unfair and uneven on both sides, but this is what we’re dealing with.
Easy come, easy go
Back in the day, getting a date with someone was a harrowing experience.
You had to bring your best game to the table and face humiliation and constant rejection. By the time you got your lady to the restaurant, you'd jumped your motorcycle through six burning hoops, rescued three cats out of trees and fed the starving orphans of Liberia.
Now, you can order a date about as easy as you order takeout, and you can cancel it much easier, as the pizza guy is at least asking you to commit to paying for it.
Most dating isn't really dating in the dinner & a movie sense - it's hanging out. Very easy, very low key.
It's a simple principle of marketing: People value what they work for much more than what comes easy.
That's why nowadays it's become socially acceptable to ghost someone even after four dates. Especially that infinity of app people. Connection has become a commodity, rather than the hard-earned delicacy of ages past.
The dawn of a new polygamy
App dating allows our natural tendencies to show in new and interesting ways, leading to some fascinating insights into how men and women strategise about dating.
In an, admittedly not peer-reviewed study, a Tinder quant crunched some numbers about male and female behaviour on the app.
The results are shocking - to anyone that isn't into evolutionary psychology. On the level of attractiveness, measured by the frequency of "swiping right", the bottom 80% of men are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men. A guy with average attractiveness can only expect to be liked by slightly less than 1% of females. This means one “like” for every 115 women that see his profile.
Tinder is an incredibly unequal market in terms of supply and demand, where a few top male players hold almost all the cards, and the bottom 80% of men could do themselves a favour and just delete the app.
And this, my friends, is the new polygamy.
The top few percents of men, the proverbial "assholes" that all your female friends complain about, have an almost endless harem of available girls from which to choose. A technologically enabled Swedish buffet of poon.
These guys don't have a lot of incentive to treat any single girl like a princess when there are 15 other "functional equivalents" blowing up their phone at any time.
So, they don't.
A lot of women have the opportunity to go on dates with these high-status guys, but that's about all it is. The incentive to commit to any particular woman is extremely low if you're not so inclined. And given that high testosterone correlates with both being attractive to the opposite sex and little interest in commitment, of the top 20% guys, the proportion of men that are naturally geared toward settling down is even lower than in the general population. Not only do these guys have a lot of mate choice, but they probably also want to keep their options open.
So, if your standards are as high as the status of the most attractive man you can get on Tinder, you better be well prepared to blow his socks off with beauty, charm and wit, because it's a buyer's market.
Isn't it a bit curious that all the couples you know that have met on Tinder are at least above average looking or, usually, pretty darn hot?
Where app dating works, is a thin sliver of fairly beautiful people just below the top, where they are both similar in mate value and attractiveness and both at a stage where they want to commit. Often, a stars-aligning type scenario.
The saddest part here isn't even the plight of women. At least they're getting some(thing).
It's the unspoken pain of the bottom 80% of men, that are understandably not too happy with the way things are going. These guys, your average Joes, are finding it harder to date than ever before because of the simple fact that the captain of the football team is on his fifth date this week. It's a replay of the situation in ancestral communities where polygamy was the norm. Most women went to the victors of male status competitions, and most men had no chances to mate.
While a lot of young women spend their 20s investing in their careers and playing the Tinder roulette with the lucky few men at the top, the one thing everyone chooses to ignore is time.
Men and women move in different dimensions when it comes to time.
While a 20-year-old man, even an attractive one, is almost a joke in terms of mate value, a 20-year-old woman wields immense power. A young, beautiful woman, even just walking down the street, bends space-time. The covers of men's magazines and the covers of women's magazines are adorned with that fresh-faced beauty. It's , but unfortunately, fleeting.
Men are evolutionarily primed to seek out health and fertility in women - nature's signal to attract our attention to a sexy, fresh replication engine.
Because freshness is part of the equation, this is a game of speed.
Women have about 30 years of fertility on the books, where a steep decline marks the last 5-10 years. Men's testosterone declines as well with age, but it's more of a mellowing, rather than nature suddenly throwing a spanner into the baby making works. Men can father children well into their old age, and they do. Charlie Chaplin was 73 when he had his last child, and the sprightly Robert De Niro had one recently, at 68.
The fact that men and women work with different timelines isn't a normative statement about what women should do with their lives - women can and should do whatever they want. It's more of a gentle reminder that even though we now play in the same arenas, women sacrifice much more by spending their youth working overtime in a halogen-lit office and in the drudgery of short-term serial monogamy than men do.
And this is a more acute issue than ever. Today, women in America are much more likely to graduate from college than men. Women are leading the pack regarding pay as well - single women with college degrees are making more than their male counterparts. A study conducted by Pew Research in 2012 found that “being successful in a high-paying career or profession” is of high importance to 66% of millennial women, while only 59% of their male counterparts believe the same. Women are killing it in the workforce and ambitions have never been higher.
But "waking up at 30" has a whole different connotation when you're a woman. If you're a guy, waking up at 30 still means taking a shower, eating cereal and playing Call of Duty on the weekend. Parallel dimensions.
There's been a movement to glamourise the childless life in the last few years, culminating with a Time cover where two sexy singles with negligible body fat were lounging on a beach, undisturbed by the pesky future generation. Add to that that nowadays, if you want to be sustainable and save the planet, you better make sure you're completely extinguishing your bloodline by way of vasectomy. It's the only way to save the Angler Fish.
While having children is an important, personal and heavy choice to make, be wary of people that have missed the boat imposing their lifestyle on others. Of the 80% of childless, unmarried women that the United States' National Survey of Family Growth interviewed, 81% want to have children one day.
For most women, childlessness isn't a personal statement on gender liberation. It's a sentence.
Obsessed with youth
We are living in times where the impact, visibility and perceived importance of the young are enormous. The culture is moulded by social media, and it is democratised, spread out between millions, and almost all the people creating it are under 40.
Where in epochs past, the village elders or the old, established, high-status members of society wielded the control of culture, we now live in an era where, because of the ballooning monopoly of social media, it seems like everyone is either young or non-existent.
This relentless focus on youth skews peoples' perception of life in general. In the current zeitgeist, life peaks in your twenties, fizzles out in your thirties and then drags on anonymously and sadly for another 40-60 years.
The truth is, your twenties is ideally the time when you gain experience and make arrangements for the biggest chunk of your life - being an adult (and not Adulting, for fuck's sake).
And this applies to dating as well.
If you choose the "single life" you need to fully realise that it looks very different in your twenties than it looks in your fifties. It won't be all parties, festivals and hanging out with friends. Sure, there are still people hooking up on Tinder at 50, but it's slim pickings - also, hooking up is a different game when your sexy ankle tattoo of Tinkerbell is starting to look a lot more like Meatloaf.
Your generation's game of musical chairs has been over for a few decades, and your friends will probably have exited a long time ago. Even if you want to sink your claws into that life and not let go while time drags you out kicking and screaming, you'll soon be very alone in the club.
In time, other things become more important. I know it might not seem that way now, but you'll change too. Don't make bets on the fact that you'll feel like you do now forever, and don't make big decisions on that basis either. Family, community, legacy - these things will probably be centre stage for the biggest part of your life, long after the edgy hedonism of your youth is a hazy memory.
Samantha Jones is an iconic character, but she's fictional for a reason.
The grass is greener on the other date
Probably one of the most famous words our generation has coined is FOMO.
The Fear Of Missing Out.
We're plagued by it in every area of life, from work to friendship, and dating is no exception.
The fact that now you can potentially have 7 dates a week - or what the hell, 14, what are lunches for? - if you wanted, can be a bit of a problem.
There always might be someone better right around the next swipe.
You can't really know until you've dated EVERYONE, right?
Nobody is perfect, each person you'll meet will have some desirable characteristics and some faults. But the constant chase makes you feel like maybe the next one will fit more of the criteria.
They will, and they won't.
But love isn't just a feeling. It's also a doing.
Love isn't just butterflies and grand gestures and "you complete me". Love is understanding that the hard times, the conflict, the edges, the challenge - that's where we build the relationship, that's where we grow as people. We might have to wean ourselves off the Disney a little and drop some of the romantic entitlement. The first step in finding love is to become someone you'd like to date before you can expect it from another person.
And the thing is, the people you are dating are feeling the same. There might be a better version of you two blocks away. With red hair this time and a slightly less annoying laugh.
It's hard to have standards and try to get to know someone when at the slightest challenge or discomfort, they can exchange you for the next foxy Lithuanian that's flashing on their phone.
If you like someone, even a little, pause the apps. Always having one foot out the door isn't fair to them or you.
While mate choice also depends on a much larger variety of cultural and personal factors than the ones I've outlined here, the basic facts of initial attraction won't budge too much through social intervention or cultural mediation.
This isn't to say that this is how things should be, but denying the underlying biological story that prompts our actions in the realm of dating isn’t doing us any good.
And, as always, we can ignore these factors, as we usually do, but understanding the hidden realities of your life is the only way to live truly, love completely, and act with empathy.
If you liked this essay, you might like:
Books that help you make peace with human nature
A primer on the evolutionary roots of mating strategies: The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating - David M. Buss
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature - Matt Ridley (please read every book this man has ever published, he is a genius)
And a classic for a reason - Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus - John Gray
Got to this point in a 2500 word article without throwing your phone against the wall or punching your laptop?