Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ask for Shallowness Assessments and You’ll Get Them

Slate has a cutesy article, “An Economist Goes to a Bar…And solves the mysteries of dating” which the basis is that the author, Ray Fisman, along with another economist and two psychologists performed a field experiment watching speed daters over a two year period and observed the results.

After two years of serving as academic love brokers, we had data on thousands of decisions made by more than 400 daters from Columbia University's various graduate and professional schools. By combining all of our choice and ratings data with separately collected background information on the daters, we could figure out what made someone desirable by comparing the attributes of daters that attracted a lot of interest for future dates with those that were less popular.
They found the obvious finding that men “put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner's beauty, when choosing, than women did.”

But that’s not the only finding the article reports. They found that women prefer their own race but men are not as choosey. (Slate’s teaser on the article is “The Myth of the Asian Fetish.”)

The author also states that of the men they observed, most didn’t like women who were smarter or more ambitious than themselves.
In a survey we did before the speed dating began, participants rated their own intelligence levels, and it turns out that men avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves. The same held true for measures of career ambition—a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.
I’d like to point out some problems with the article which I think is more from how the experiment is written up than how it was performed. Part of the problem is that the author is explaining his findings as if they apply to the population as a whole. But considering they were only observing Columbia University students -- that is people from a highly elite, expensive university in New York City -- I think it's difficult to say that the behaviors they observed would be found in equal measure in all men or women in America. Perhaps men in Mississippi or North Dakota, or Washington State wouldn't be turned off by discovering their date is either smarter or more ambitious than they are.

The answer could be that American men are the same coast-to-coast, but you can’t simply survey some preppy college students in New York and think you’ve discovered the key to every person’s psyche. The results might be applicable to a larger population but you won’t know unless you’ve tested the experience in different “fields.”

Fortunately not all dating resembles speed dating or Craiglists. We might be ruthlessly shallow when only given a shallow venue to evaluate someone but both men and women tend to consider a potential’s mate desirability on shifting factors, which might include more familiarity. Sometimes you don’t find someone attractive or even interesting until the 10th or 25th or even 50th time you’ve hung out with them.

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