Dating is complicated — but understanding a few key economic principles can help you make better choices. Not in the way you think.
Cynics are fond of talking about sex in economic terms. In the USA, where men are expected to spend large sums of money on romance, they’ll talk about “investing” in their dating life, or the “cost” of getting their dates into bed — $50 on dinner, $30 on movie tickets, $40 on flowers… We’re also fond of talking about sex in terms of the value it gives to the people who do it — or the value it takes away. Men supposedly get higher status from their sexual encounters, while too much sex “devalues” women.
Hogwash, I say. Women are not second-hand cars; our value doesn’t decrease every time we let someone touch the steering wheel. As for the whole sexist culture of expensive dating, where men spend money so women will grant them sexual or marital favors, that’s just so 1950s. It’s already on its way out, in the States and elsewhere.
So is economic theory irrelevant to romance? Not so fast. There are a few key economic principles that you need to understand in order to make healthy decisions about your dating life. They’re about the value of your time, your emotional energy, and the best ways to produce positive romantic outcomes. More importantly, they’re about understanding what you’re doing — not fumbling around in the dark, hoping that things will work out, and being down on yourself when they don’t.
The first is the law of attraction: or why your “value” on the dating market isn’t about what you bring, it’s about how you bring it.
1. The Law of Attraction (Something Is Worth Whatever You’re Willing To Pay For It)
There are three main factors that companies take into account when they decide what to charge for their products. One factor is the cost of production, which includes the cost of labor, materials, shipping, and overheads. Another is competition: what everyone else is charging for the alternatives. (That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, so let’s forget about that for now.) The third factor is perceived value, which has almost nothing to do with anything other than desire.
Take perfume, for example. The basic cost to make a designer perfume is not that different from the cost of mass-producing a drugstore perfume. They may even be made in the same factories. The designer perfume might come in more expensive packaging and it will of course have a more expensive marketing campaign, but all of those production costs don’t justify the huge difference in price to the consumer — maybe $20 for the drugstore perfume versus $100 for the designer one. Does that mean we should all go out and buy drugstore perfumes? Clearly not. But the difference in price, and our willingness to pay more for one, has everything to do with how we feel about them. When it comes to luxury items, or almost anything, their value is abstract, and it’s created by imagination.
When it comes to attraction between people, this is good news. It means that your “value” on the dating market isn’t about a set of one-size-fits-all ideals. You don’t have to measure yourself up against the “perfect” competition. Instead, your attractiveness is about your ability to appeal to what someone else desires — specifically, someone else who appeals to you, too.
Let’s back up. All too often we get hung up on our perceived qualities and flaws. When you sign up to a dating website, you might feel insecure because you’re not “perfect”. You’re a man who’s under five foot ten, or you’re a single mother, or you think your job is boring. The mistake you’re making is to view yourself in terms of basic production value. But that’s not what ultimately determines your value. You’re seeing yourself as if you were a drugstore perfume, when instead, you’re Yves Saint Laurent, baby.
So increasing your attractiveness isn’t about doing away with your flaws or pretending to be someone you’re not. Instead, it’s about identifying and setting your appeal to the imagination — your ability to evoke desire. And that will be different for everyone. (I’ll talk about identifying your dating niche in a later post.)
And there’s another lesson: just as with the perfumes, increasing your perceived appeal is all about better packaging. Are you presenting yourself as a lonely geek who’s not very good at social interactions? Better packaging means you’re an independent, tech-savvy introvert with a sensitive side. Yeah, it’s kind of dumb, but the packaging really does matter. The perfume inside is not much different either way. Improving your ability to present yourself to others is a way of improving your self-esteem, with the wonderful added effect of improving your desirability.
Consumer goods are worth whatever people are willing to pay for them, not their intrinsic value or cost of production. And your desirability is the same. Finding a good mate is all about identifying your value to each other based on your personal history, your psychological make-up, your whole imagination basically. It’s not about seeking an ideal that doesn’t exist.
So don’t compare yourself to an impossible ideal; don’t let the competition get you down, and definitely don’t make the mistake of reducing yourself, or your possible dates, to your intrinsic “cost” components (salary, height, boob size). Instead, focus on desire: what you want, and how you can appeal to the ones you want. Your success or failure at attracting the people you want to meet has everything to do with speaking to their imagination.