The Formula To Romance
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Economics is not the sexiest of topics. But could financial rules be more suited to dating than we might think? A new book, The Romantic Economist, proposes that unlikely argument. Author and economist William Nicholson, overwhelmed by the heady combination of numbers and a desire for a relationship, started to notice similarities between economic theories and the dating world. And so he set about applying them to real life.
The idea of any sort of steps to dating certainly seems dubious. It means taking the most suggestible, emotional feeling we can have and applying the rules of one of the most black-and-white, clinical professions imaginable (bar medicine, obviously).
The link, says the 26-year-old Nicholson, wasn’t so implausible to him when he arrived at the idea an Edinburgh Economics student, “My friends liked to discuss all things economics related. When we started discussing things like how to invest in stocks and shares for instance, we started noticing a few analogies that could be drawn from the theory that we were learning in the classroom to a dating situation at university. It was quite tongue in cheek,” justifies Nicholson.
We’re sceptical. This theory sounds a bit like a Uni Lad gag that’s been blown all out of sane proportion. Nicholson explains his reasoning in building up the theories and applying them to real life, “I started thinking about the economic theories we were learning in relation to what being told you shouldn’t make yourself too available to girls. I started thinking if that’s the standard advice, it seems that ‘playing hard to get’ does have quite a lot of similarities to the theory of supply and demand. So I started kind of rolling with the idea of developing a series.”
It’s a quintessential dating idea we’ve all been told before: that if we go against how we really feel and act a bit more aloof, the object of our affections will find us all the more irresistible. Nicholson explains why through the economic theory of ‘Restricting your supply’: the more scarce something is, the more valuable it will be. It makes sense when you think about why people play hard to get, says William, “in the January sales for instance, shops slash their prices to make them more attractive to shoppers, whereas when you’re in a relationship you actually want to increase it to make yourself more attractive. I realised that it’s because when we’re trying to market ourselves as a luxury item. I mean, a Rolex is far more expensive than it would cost to produce and one of the ways they can justify charging that amount is because they actually want to keep the exclusivity of the brand; it’s a status symbol. Playing hard to get is similar in many ways to how Rolex price their goods very highly; its so that the people they’re trying to attract feel like they’ve made it; they’ve somehow gained exclusive access to someone’s affections.” Being pleasant from the beginning, says Nicholson, is a problem for the same reason, “if your partner doesn’t have to put much effort into getting you, it makes them feel like anyone could have got you. They don’t feel special or unique to have won that person over.”
Then again, restricting your supply isn’t a foolproof plan, says Will. Act all distant in a busy club, for example, and whoever you’re trying to attract the attention of will just move on to any of the other guys in the club. You haven’t yet identified yourself as an exclusive brand, “Playing hard to get when no one knows who you are isn’t going to work because you’re not a brand at that point, like you haven’t identified yourself. The reason Prada can charge so much is because everyone knows who they are, they’re unique brand and no one’s going to be able to replicate them. So it’s only once you’ve marked yourself out from the crowd that you can shift your brand from not just one where maybe you just want to be as easy as possible to one where people are prepared to put an awful lot of effort into getting.”
The theory does stand up, no matter how cringeworthy the thought of actually using it is. Another is the thought process behind ‘signalling preferences’: in the area of information economics, it means working out the details on an environment where we don’t have all the information we need — relying on signals from companies or individuals to make a more educated assumption and reduce uncertainty in a situation. In dating terms, this means getting across how you feel about someone , without showing all your cards and scaring someone off by being too forward. A signalling technique, says Nicholson, would be going on a lunch date rather than a dinner one. It implies that you’re not expecting to go home with that person that very night — that you’re happy to be patient and want to develop a relationship over time, but without coming out and saying all that to someone straight away, “in dating situations, there’s so much uncertainty mainly because it’s against the rules to talk about how you feel in the early days.”
As Nicholson explains the way the economic theories can be applied to relationships, it’s difficult to find flaw in the logic. They’re ideas we’ve heard before when it comes to dating, but laid out to explain the exact reasoning behind them.
But then reason these rules work is because they rely on playing a ‘dating game’. It’s putting in-depth labels on what is actually game playing. If you treat relationships like a game, there will be rules. But you’re ultimately finding solutions to problems that you’ve created yourself by doing so. “Restricting supply” to “increase demand” of yourself? Yes, that will have a certain effect. But if you don’t go into a relationship expecting to put theories into practice then the situation where you need to put into practise “signalling preferences” won’t even arise. You’re putting yourself at a disadvantage if you immediately try and follow rules and theories, reacting to all the complications that game playing brings with it. You’re pre-empting difficulties and ultimately fighting a losing battle.
And besides, that is a completely colossal, fundamentally awful, absolute no-no of a turn off.
That doesn’t mean they won’t have the desired effect. To begin with. The theories are solid, consistent and will most likely give you the result you were initially after. But what about when you’re a few dates in? They’re not sustainable. If you want a real relationship, at what point do you stop playing games and act naturally? Can you ever, if the foundations are on economic theory? What theory do you apply to What To Do When Your Girlfriend Wants You To Go To Her Friend’s Wedding With Her But You’d Quite Like To Go To The Football But Also Don’t Want An Argument?
And then what do you do when those theories have worked, to a point, and then your more-significant-than-you-expected-them-to-become other discovers the games you’ve been playing?
On the next page: The dangers of the dating formula — and how it really can be put into practice…