REVIEW: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating
by Paul Oyer
The concepts underpinning micro-economics were developed by Adam Smith and others in the 18th century, from observing how auction-style commercial markets behave. In these markets price changes are the ‘invisible hand’ that ensure demand from buyers matches supply from sellers. Ever since economists have been trying to convince others that their toolkit will also help people understand and make better decisions in other non-commercial spheres of daily life.
A recent book by Paul Oyer, a Stanford professor best known for his contributions to labour economics, is the latest in this proselytising genre. He cockily asserts that “learning the economics that drives the world” will improve your chances of meeting the mate of your dreams in the increasingly popular world of online dating. Sciblog readers may be sceptical about the value economists add in general, let alone to the 21st century pursuit of your next significant other online. But if you do want to simultaneously learn some key micro-economic concepts and get useful insights into how to tackle key decisions to be made when internet dating, then perhaps this is the book for you.
Relative to most books on economics, Oyer’s book is a thin tome that is relatively easy to read. He adopts a jocular conversational style and because he knows micro-economics inside and out, he is able to explain complex things in simple terms. He peppers the economic theory with lots of accessible and refreshingly frank anecdotes about his own internet dating experiences and those of others he met during his own post-divorce search for a new life partner. Which was ultimately successful – perhaps because he practised what he preaches, rather than just good luck.
The structure of the book is consistent in a rather text bookish way. Each chapter is devoted to a different micro-economic concept such as search theory, network externalities, signalling, adverse selection, and the return to skills. Each chapter begins with a brief clear description of an aspect of the internet dating ‘market and of the economic concept most relevant to understanding the decisions an internet dater must make about it. Then Oyer adds a smattering of relevant (and sometimes amusing) anecdotes about his own internet dating experiences and examples of the relevance of the economic concept being focused on in other contexts, such as the labour market or product markets. Finally each chapter concludes with a helpful ‘hints and tips’ section, so you don’t lose sight of key insights along the way.
From my own online dating experiences, I can attest that Oyer’s book deals with real issues and decisions to be made when seeking a life partner on the internet. These include how many of numerous internet dating sites to sign on with?; how truthful to be and how truthful to assume others are being in what they say they are really like and what they are really seeking?; how much time to spend reviewing the many profiles on large sites before deciding who to contact?; how long to chat online to someone whose profile sounds interesting before you meet them in person?; when dating someone you fancy, how soon should you let them know this?; what if the attraction turns out to be both mutual and lasting (but they don’t have everything you are looking for) – at which point should you settle for them (love the one you are with), rather than return to the dating sites to continue looking for that elusive – and possibly impossible to find – perfect match?
I enjoyed the first few chapters of this book, but eventually it began to feel a bit formulaic. If I apply my usual measuring stick for books about economics – does it comply with Nobel prizewinning economist Amartya Sen’s injunction to “put the people back into economics” – I would have to say yes. However I doubt that Sen would see it as the next leap forward in economics.
It did refresh my knowledge of recent developments in micro-economics, but won’t give a non-economist enough to understand how commercial markets function. While I doubt that it has significantly improved my chances of finding my next life-partner online, it did produce enough wry grins and occasional ‘aha’ moments to make it worth my while reading it.
[You may also be interested in listening to this Radio NZ interview with Paul Oyer, Afternoons March 10 2014]
Diane Owenga is currently Manager, Disability Policy at the Ministry of Health. She was previously Managing Director of Strategic Policy Consulting Ltd, and prior to that spent 20 year career as an economic and public policy adviser in New Zealand (at ACC, in the Department of Labour and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet). She began her professional life as a lecturer in health economics at the Wellington Clinical School of Medicine.