Episode 513: Dear Economist, I Need A Date

Mar 1, 2017

This episode originally ran in 2014.

Economists get a bad rap. People say they're dry, they're boring, too rational or always going on about one indicator or another.

But here at Planet Money, we wanted to see if the principles of economics could help us out with something more personal, more abstract: love.

So we solicited your questions about dating and sex and relationships. And then we asked economist Tim Harford to play "love doctor." We hear from a despondent high schooler, a polyamorist and we get an update from a listener who took Tim's advice to heart.

Music: "Baiser Fatal" and "Hearts Beat In Time" Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on iTunes or PocketCast.

Check out Why Oh Why, a podcast we mention in this episode.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, HOST:

When Lisa signed up for match.com, she was at this point in her dating life where she felt she's ready to try something new. Not online dating - she'd met people online before - but just generally, she'd been feeling like she needed a whole new approach.

LISA CHOW, BYLINE: I had to be kind of more aggressive about it. I had to be more diligent and not just - and I had to be focused.

JOFFE-WALT: Lisa was 31 years old. She'd just moved back to New York City, and she'd basically spent her 20s in a series of long-term relationships.

CHOW: I kind of decided at 31 that I didn't have that luxury anymore. I couldn't do that anymore. And so I was much more efficient (laughter).

JOFFE-WALT: Lisa, you may recognize, is our very own Lisa Chow, a reporter here at PLANET MONEY. But this was back in 2008, long before she joined us here. And none of us actually knew this story until just yesterday.

CHOW: And so I started going on dates. And it did get a little bit overwhelming. And so I did do something - I did make an Excel file, and I started just writing down their names.

JOFFE-WALT: You have a spreadsheet right there in front of you.

CHOW: Yes, I have (laughter) - I have a spreadsheet in front of me. And I kind of created these different columns. Actually - one, two, three, four, five - six columns.

JOFFE-WALT: Lisa needed the spreadsheet because in a year and a half, Lisa Chow went on 50 dates - 50 first dates.

CHOW: Twenty-two of the 50 I went on second dates with. Yeah, it was a lot of dating.

JOFFE-WALT: Was it fun?

CHOW: Oh, it was so much fun.

JOFFE-WALT: Really?

CHOW: Yeah, I really loved it. I mean, I - you know, it's so funny. I was actually really pleasantly surprised. I mean, the guys were really great. There were some really nice guys.

JOFFE-WALT: That is literally the first time I have ever heard that from a woman who dates online.

(LAUGHTER)

JOFFE-WALT: Wow, really?

CHOW: Yeah, yeah, like, pleasantly surprised how many really great guys there are.

JOFFE-WALT: I asked Lisa to come open today's show because my colleague Lisa is a secret dating genius. I had no idea. She went on 50 first dates, and she never once felt sad or stressed or demoralized. She just was efficient and rational. She thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience.

Here's what she did. She went on 50 dates. And each time, she went home after the date and she would record month, year, time, location, name and one memorable detail.

CHOW: OK. So I have pothead, touchy, boring. Oh (laughter), this guy had four gym memberships.

JOFFE-WALT: What was the one that I just saw that I loved? Here, for this person, you have bobs his head a bit too much; socially inept Russian; this guy - way West Coast but super cute dude.

(LAUGHTER)

JOFFE-WALT: At the time, Lisa had lots of friends who were also dating online. And they would all complain all the time about, you know, I wrote five guys and only one of them wrote me back.

CHOW: When I was doing online dating, I never wrote people emails. I mean, some people might call that a cop-out. But I just said, I'm going to lower my transaction costs and purely just wink. And if they're really interested, they'll write back. I remember, actually, I'd be sitting, like, watching some HBO show (laughter) and just, like, sitting back with my computer and going - click, click, click - you know - wink, wink, wink - you know, and not even thinking twice about it.

JOFFE-WALT: The date needed to happen very soon after first contact. Lisa didn't want to build up some idea of the guy before meeting him and then have an opportunity to be disappointed. Similarly, no dates on Friday or Saturday nights. She told me it's depressing to come home after a bad date on a weekend, so she just never let that happen. And if Lisa went on a third date with someone, she would always take them to a social gathering that included some casual friends of hers. That way, she could observe them in a social setting.

In other words, Lisa took something that's normally mysterious and squishy, human attraction, and she tried to strip it of all of the messy emotions. I really think that's what made her so successful. She made this thing that most people find so stressful and tedious that just sucks your time and self-confidence and hope, and she made that fun. And she did it using data and statistics.

And true economics reporter, Lisa Chow, she applied the principles of economics to her love life and it worked.

CHOW: There was one guy - hold on - that was, like, almost, like, 45 - number 45, right? We were kind of dating. We were seeing each other for about six weeks. And I just at one point just decided, OK, this is not going to work out. So I cut the cord. And then I - and I thought, like, did I make a mistake? Like, you know, we did have so many kind of things in common. And then the next week, I went on a date with Kevin. And instantly, I knew I didn't make a mistake, you know?

And I was thinking, all of those times that I had - if I had stayed with that guy, you know, I wouldn't have had that opportunity to meet, like, the Kevin, right? And so it just became very - it kind of crystallized right there. Like, oh, OK, that's what an opportunity cost feels like, right? It's like when you stay with that guy you're kind of feeling iffy about and you're missing out on, you know, Kevin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIAN GAZAN AND FREDERIC AUGER'S "BAISER FATAL")

JOFFE-WALT: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

And I'm Robert Smith. And that was Lisa Chow, PLANET MONEY reporter, now married to Kevin.

JOFFE-WALT: And Lisa and Kevin have a beautiful toddler named Isaac (ph).

SMITH: And Lisa's story reminded us of something that we wonder about during our dark, dark moments of producing this show, which is how useful is economics in our everyday life? I mean, how far can you really take it? Can you take it all the way to the most emotional, intimate part of our lives? Today, we're going to try. This episode was originally recorded in 2013 - Economic Advice for the Lovelorn. At the end of the show, we'll have an update on how our advice turned out in real life. Stick around for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOFFE-WALT: We had an opportunity to test this the other day because one of our favorite economists was in New York promoting a new book, Tim Harford.

SMITH: And Tim Harford is a great guy. He used to work as an economist for Shell and the World Bank. And then he went into the sort of thing we do, explanatory journalism. He wrote a book called "The Undercover Economist" and a column in the Financial Times. And I imagine it's somewhat hard to come up with a topic every week in the Financial Times. And so he had this great idea, this jokey idea. I will do a "Dear Economist" advice column, love and sex advice for the heartbroken.

TIM HARFORD: In many ways, love seems to be totally divorced from economics. But then you realize - well, the stakes are high. This is something that matters to us. We're dealing with scarcity. I mean, if you're dating one person, at the very least, you don't have as much time to date another person. And you may well find that you can only date one person at a time.

SMITH: And something strange happened when he started to do this column. I mean, at first it was this character he was playing. But then real people started writing with real problems. And Tim started to think, you know, economics really does have something to offer these people.

HARFORD: It's simultaneously completely useless and irrelevant and somehow in some brilliant, hidden, genius way, keeps producing insights that are not necessarily obvious from the normal way that we think about things.

JOFFE-WALT: We knew Tim was coming in and we asked all of you to send us your questions about love and sex and whatever else you wanted to ask Tim about. And we got some of you on the phone with Tim so you could ask him directly for his economic advice.

Arthur (ph), are you there?

ARTHUR: Yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: Great, hi.

ARTHUR: Hi.

JOFFE-WALT: So we have Tim Harford here. Do you want to introduce yourself to him?

ARTHUR: OK, my name is Arthur. I live in Pittsburgh, Pa. I'm a senior in high school.

HARFORD: I'm pleased to meet you, Arthur. How are you? I'm Tim.

ARTHUR: Pleased to meet you.

JOFFE-WALT: So what's your question for the economist?

ARTHUR: All right, so my question is - I'm a senior in high school, and I've never been on a date. Should I be worried about this?

JOFFE-WALT: Arthur, can I just ask - what is it about not having been on a date that makes you worried? What makes you think you should be worried?

ARTHUR: I don't know. It just seems that everyone else, you know, like - well, not everyone else but lots of people around me, you know, and, you know, I have a prom coming up, and I'm clueless about that. So it's kind of - it's a little bit stressful.

HARFORD: Well, Arthur, I think you are the victim of what behavioral economists call hyperbolic discounting, or more simply, you're taking a very short-term perspective. So you've really missed the first 10 percent of your possible dating experience. And let's be honest, it's not the best 10 percent, is it? I mean, dating when you're a teenager, it's not that great. There are all kinds of inconveniences. You don't have your own place. And you don't really know what you're doing.

In any case, economists counsel that you shouldn't worry about sunk costs. You can't go back in time and have a date when you're 15 anyway, so don't worry about that. I would just be inclined to crack on with things. Are you planning to go to college?

ARTHUR: Yeah.

HARFORD: Yeah, well, experience suggests it's going to get a lot more exciting from then on in. Don't worry.

ARTHUR: OK.

JOFFE-WALT: Are you going to ask somebody to prom?

ARTHUR: I haven't really thought about that, you know? I kind of wish prom wasn't a thing.

HARFORD: I think a lot of people have that feeling. I could give you a piece of advice specifically about the prom if you're interested. So the great behavioral economist/psychologist Daniel Kahneman - he won the Nobel Prize in economics, even though he's not an economist; that's how good he is - he talks about something called loss aversion. And this is a discovery that was one of the first discoveries made in behavioral economics.

And loss aversion is a really disproportionate anxiety about stuff that doesn't matter very much. So for instance, if you lose $5, you feel really bad about the $5 you've lost. You're cursing yourself. You're going through it again and again. If, on the other hand, you find $5, you go - hey, great, five bucks. And you've forgotten about it really quickly. So now let's think about prom night. What are the gains of a prom date that goes well versus the losses from a prom date that doesn't go well or you ask someone to the prom and they say, no?

Well, actually, you weren't going to have a prom date anyway if you didn't ask. So the cost of asking somebody and being refused is actually really quite small. It doesn't feel good, but it's no big deal, whereas you never had the date before, so - hey, if this date goes well, this could be the start of something really big for you. So remember loss aversion when you are weighing out these two choices. I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you you're probably taking the downside risk too seriously and not thinking enough about the potential upside.

SMITH: Just don't actually use the words loss aversion...

ARTHUR: (Laughter) When you're asking, yeah.

SMITH: ...When you're asking the woman, yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: How do you feel about that advice, Arthur?

ARTHUR: I feel great.

JOFFE-WALT: That makes you feel better?

ARTHUR: It makes me feel really good.

HARFORD: Economics spreads happiness.

(LAUGHTER)

HARFORD: It's the truth.

JOFFE-WALT: Arthur, thank you so much.

ARTHUR: Thank you very much.

SMITH: All right, one problem solved. If you're just tuning in, Dear Economist is taking advice for the lovelorn. Next up...

SMITH: Russell (ph), can you hear us?

RUSSELL: Yes, I can.

SMITH: This is Robert Smith, the co-host. We're here with Tim Harford.

HARFORD: Hello, Russell. This is Tim.

RUSSELL: Hi there, Tim.

JOFFE-WALT: And you want to just introduce yourself to our economist and tell him your question.

RUSSELL: Well, you bet. I guess my question is kind of long. My name is Russell, and I'm polyamorous. I'm married, but I also have two close other loving partners who I share my life with. And in turn, she also has other partners of her own. And in fact, we live with one of her boyfriends. A core tendon of polyamory is the concept of abundance. And love is abundant, and you can share it with whomever you want, whereas monogamy concentrates on scarcity.

So I'm just curious to hear the economist's thoughts on the idea of scarcity and abundance in love and then what economic benefits or detractors could arise from society thinking abundantly about love in this way.

HARFORD: So Russell, economics is often described as the study of scarce resources. So in a way, you would think that an economist was the wrong person to analyze this situation of abundance that you find yourself in. I'm sure a lot of listeners are contemplating that abundance right now. What I would say is that love may be boundless and abundant, but time isn't. Time is finite. So the challenge that I'm sure you're well aware of having to manage is splitting your time between your multiple partners.

Now, there is actually an economic theory that is related to this. It was developed by Gary Becker, Nobel Prize-winner in economics. And he developed an idea of how many children you might want to have. And what Becker said is there's a trade-off here because each additional child that you have is going to divide your time and your attention. You're going to have to cram them into a smaller house. They're going to have to share rooms, or you might have to move into the suburbs, somewhere cheaper, further away from where the job is.

You can't afford to spend so much time with them. And so in Becker's theory, there is this trade-off between the quantity of children and the quality of children. And I would imagine you face the same trade-off. You have to decide what the optimal number of committed partners is. You say that love is abundant and can be shared in a transparent way, but actually, your behavior is not totally consistent with that because you only have, I think - what? - three committed partners. Your wife has a few committed partners. Why not 5 billion? I mean, there are 7 billion people on the planet. Why not love all of them?

SMITH: What do you think, Russell? Have you hit your limit?

RUSSELL: Actually, the answer is yes because what I discovered is trying to be able to have, let's say, more than three partners was absolutely impossible, at least for my own relationships. Tim is right in that I constantly have to be able to balance my time and be able to schedule and coordinate my time with my partners so that I can be able to have a meaningful relationship. Otherwise, it just kind of degrades over time, and it's not something that's worthwhile or meaningful.

HARFORD: Russell, this is something I love about economics. So I know very little about polyamory. This is a theory that Gary Becker developed almost half a century ago, and yet it delivers a result that you find persuasive.

RUSSELL: That's fantastic. Thank you.

JOFFE-WALT: OK. Well, thanks so much for calling us.

SMITH: Thanks, Russell.

RUSSELL: Bye-bye.

SMITH: Our next guest, Tim, we've brought in in person because...

HARFORD: I can see that.

SMITH: ...She's got some things to show you. Introduce yourself Andrea.

ANDREA SILENZI: My name's Andrea Silenzi, and I'm the host of a dating podcast called "Why Oh Why."

HARFORD: Hi, Andrea. Very nice to meet you. So what can I do for you?

SILENZI: How many dating apps should I be on to do - to find a match?

HARFORD: It starts to get very difficult, when you have too many, to spend any amount of time on any one of these things. I mean, your question, seems to me, implies that you're trying to find the perfect match because only if you were trying to find the perfect match would you expand and have, you know, one app and then a second app and a third app and a fourth app. Because if you're actually just trying to converge on good-enough, you'd probably want to focus.

But tell me - I mean, why - what do you see in these apps?

SILENZI: I think what I'm trying to optimize here is - if I'm going to spend time - you know, I'm going to set aside a Thursday; we're going to come up with a time; we're going to find a place; I'm going to get on the train; I'm going to sit down for a drink and have to meet this person - I want to make it worth my time. I want to make sure that I'm - I don't want to waste a Thursday.

HARFORD: The scarce resource here is not men. The scarce resource is Thursday. What you really need to be doing is finding out a way to have a date-like experience before you have the date because the date-like experience is what you really - you don't need to look at a thousand guys online. What you need to do is have five almost-dates to save on the actual date, which is the really scarce resource.

So what you need to do is you need to have some app that lets you, say, look at paintings in the Metropolitan Museum together and talk about them or watch a film together online and talk about the film online - and as you very quickly find out then whether there's a match or not.

SMITH: Is there anything that can, like, simulate a date or at least a real conversation?

SILENZI: Well, hypothetically, I could ask any guy - hey, before we decide to go to this bar in Williamburg next Thursday, how about instead we Skype for 15 minutes? And I think I would know what I need to know from that Skype conversation, but it's an ask that no one else is asking for.

HARFORD: So no one else...

SILENZI: It would ask for a level of commitment you're kind of not allowed to ask for.

HARFORD: I think that you should stick to this. Do you know why I think you should stick to this?

SILENZI: Because my time is incredibly valuable and I am so busy (laughter).

HARFORD: Yeah, you know that. But here's the thing - because wouldn't it be interesting to find the guys who would actually exceed to that request? This is actually your - we've already discussed, there's no shortage of guys out there. There's lots and lots of guys out there. The question is trying to find the right one.

And so you're effectively setting up what Michael Spence, Nobel Prize winner in economics, would call a screen. So you're saying, all I want from you - happy to date - all I want from you is 15 minutes on an internet connection to talk.

SILENZI: Thank you so much for having me, and I feel like I learned a ton. I'm so excited to annoy all of Brooklyn with my Skype requests.

HARFORD: Excellent - economics making people's lives better. Tell me how the Skype works out.

SILENZI: I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD EVANS AND ZED PARKER'S "HEARTS BEAT IN TIME")

SMITH: This is how we left the show in 2014, just sort of a fun way to think about economics in our real life. I did not think that anyone would take the advice seriously. But Andrea Salenzi, the last voice you heard - she did take it seriously. Shortly after the show aired, Andrea started to date via Skype. And in her own podcast, "Why Oh Why," she told the whole story of how it worked out. Let's hear a little clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY OH WHY")

MIKE: Hey.

SILENZI: Hi.

MIKE: Hold on a second (laughter).

SILENZI: This is so weird.

MIKE: Yeah. It was your idea.

SILENZI: (Laughter) No, it's an economist's idea. But it was my idea to take dating advice from an economist...

MIKE: Right, right.

SILENZI: ...So I kind of screwed this up.

So that's Mike, who became my boyfriend. The first conversation we ever had was recorded for the show. I even put sentimental music under it. That's how you know I like him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY OH WHY")

SILENZI: I feel like I owe you a drink (laughter). Can I take you out in real life?

MIKE: Sure.

SILENZI: Really?

MIKE: Yeah, of course. Yeah. I would love to meet you and, like, actually, like - I couldn't hear a lot of what you were saying. So I was, like, kind of, like, maybe not actually answering your questions.

SILENZI: Our first real date was to a dive bar. I went home with him. And that night he asked if it would bother me if he kept a light on. He was about to finish his book. I remember falling asleep to the sound of a page turning, knowing that this was unlike anything.

SMITH: Andrea and Mike moved in together. They planned a whole life together. And then after a couple of happy years, their relationship ended suddenly. And Andrea brought Tim Harford back on her show - on "Why Oh Why" - to talk about what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY OH WHY")

HARFORD: Listening to your last podcast was kind of surreal. I was like - yeah, Andrea. Yeah, that name rings a bell. Yeah. And then I was like - oh, I remember. Oh, that crazy PLANET MONEY thing, all that terrible, terrible advice I gave her. And then to just to listen to it all - I was like, I - I feel like I have, at least indirectly, broken your heart. And for this, I could only apologize.

SMITH: I won't spoil the whole story. The podcast is well worth listening to. It's beautiful, actually. It's called "Why Oh Why." It's on the Panoply network. Episode 8, How Will I Know? It's one of my favorites.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD EVANS AND ZED PARKER'S "HEARTS BEAT IN TIME")

SMITH: We are always looking for stories of how economics plays a role in your life, for good or for bad. Send us an email, planetmoney@npr.org, or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Today's update was produced by our intern, Daniela Vidal. We're also looking for our next summer intern. Sorry, Daniela, we plan ahead in this business. It is a great gig. Interns pitch story ideas, help us make the show. Plus, you get paid, and you get to hang out with us. Apply. You can find more information at npr.org/money.

Also, NPR has started this new campaign in which you tell a friend about a podcast you think they'll love. Right now, think about someone you care about. What podcast would they really like? Got it? Now do it, and tell them about it in real life or social media. And if they don't know how to find a podcast, show them how to do it. Tell us what you recommended with the hashtag TryPod, T-R-Y-P-O-D, #TryPod. Thanks for spreading the word. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD EVANS AND ZED PARKER'S "HEARTS BEAT IN TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.