Video

What’s the Price of Love?

When you stop playing the field and settle down, you’re applying the economic concept of search theory, says Paul Oyer ’89. Choosing a mate is a calculation that the benefits of further search are outweighed by the costs—and settling can be smart strategy.


By Conrad de Aenlle

Leave it to a cynic—or an economist—to compare the search for a soul mate with getting a job. Paul Oyer ’89, Fred H. Merrell professor of economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says there are some intriguing parallels in the processes of choosing a mate and choosing an employer.

Like the hunt for gainful employment, the quest for a meaningful relationship is search theory in action, Oyer explained in a recent lecture at Yale SOM. As a job seeker—or a single person in search of a mate—you devote resources, mainly time, until you conclude that continuing with the venture will produce a negative net return. That’s when you settle for what you’ve got.

 “From an economic perspective, searching for a partner is just cost-benefit analysis,” Oyer said. “You keep searching until the point where the expected benefits of finding someone better outweigh the costs of looking for that person.”

Oyer spoke as a guest of Professor Lisa Kahn, who teaches a popular elective course using microeconomic and statistical tools to investigate aspects of daily life, including sports, crime, and health.

Other academic researchers have examined the concept of love in terms of economics, psychology, and evolutionary biology. For example, Beth Kirsner, a University of Arizona psychologist, and her colleagues found that people—undergraduates, anyway—form relationships with others who have similar ratings on the Mate Value Inventory, a survey that she developed for assessing attributes desired in social or sexual partners. As they explained in a 2003 study, we apparently want someone who is good enough for us, but we are sufficiently self-aware not to waste the effort trying to form a relationship with someone who is out of our league.

“A potential partner with too little mate value is an unacceptable long-term partner choice, whereas one with too much mate value might not be attainable or retainable as a long-term mate,” they write. “The image of the ‘ideal’ and ‘attainable’ partner should therefore correspond closely.” In other words, a 7 may look like a perfect 10 to another 7.

To an economist like Oyer, potential mates—as well as jobs—are “differentiated goods.” “No two jobs and no two life partners are the same,” he said. That makes websites that aggregate prospective choices, such as monster.com and match.com in their respective realms, especially useful. By allowing users to narrow their searches before investing time in investigating a position or mate, they save their customers valuable time.

If the purpose of such websites is to narrow your choices, is it better to start with more or fewer options? In a 2010 study by Josefine Bengtsson and Jessica Wennerstein of the Stockholm School of Economics, dating site users said that they preferred having a wider selection. But users also expressed more regret with the choices they made when the number of mates to choose from was higher. The presence of many other fish in the sea apparently allowed them to infer that better ones were out there, and so they were less inclined, or less happy, to settle for the ones they had hooked.

One factor seems uniquely critical whether you’re looking for a mate or a job: the party you choose—your romantic partner or your prospective boss—also has to choose you.
“You keep searching until you find someone who is good enough, and you settle for that,” Oyer said, “but that only works if they settle for you, too.”

The application of search theory to the process of finding a mate or finding a job works most of the time, but it’s not perfect. In dating and job hunting alike, Oyer said, the need to decide when it’s best to settle for what’s in front of you leads to an unsatisfactory outcome for some searchers. Just as some workers will be unemployed and some jobs will go begging, there always will be people who are unhappily unattached.

It’s not the language of poets and minstrels, but as Oyer put it: “Why are you single? Loneliness is just romantic unemployment.”

Fred H. Merrell Professor of Economics, Stanford Graduate School of Business