Monday, September 17, 2007

Who to date

On this academic blog, I'm writing about dating partly because it is a big part of my life, but also because it's a subject which is, I think, academically important and not discussed all that much. Psychologists examine romantic preferences, and economists talk about the market for marriage, but it's still a huge mystery how people form their romantic preferences or even what it means for people to be a good match.

So a few more observations:

1. Intelligence matters. Being very reductionist, assuming that the multiple dimensions of intelligence can be reduced to a single metric, there are differences between the top 10%, 1%, 0.1% and 0.01%. Some people are smart, and others are really smart. If this metric exists, I can't say that I have a cut-off, but I do know that some people are smart and interesting to talk to yet I never feel absolutely blown away by their intelligence. I was in a very serious relationship with one guy who was very people-smart and sweet and appreciated me in ways that I really cherish, but he never blew me away, and it was weird feeling like I was clearly smarter than he was in a lot of ways. Maybe it's elitist or sexist, but on the other hand some women will only date men over a certain height (usually 5'10" is their cut-off, so they exclude more than half of the American population and much larger proportions of some ethnic groups) and readily admit this preference.

In person, it's clear whether you get along and you don't have to think too much about intelligence, but having not had much of a chance to meet people in person, I turn to online dating. It seems like a very large proportion of online profiles are bland, "I like to have fun. In the winter, I enjoy skiing, and in the summer, I play golf. In my spare time, I watch TV and hang out with friends, and we have a good time together. I can be both funny and serious." Some of these people who say absolutely nothing distinctive in their profiles may well be interesting and smart people, but I would think that eventually a smart person might look at their own profile and realize that they've written a whole paragraph of generalities and tautologies.

The intelligence thing can work in my favor sometimes. Men who blow me out of the water intellectually, and I would feel intimidated to be in the same courses as they are in, are still interested in me even though I am intellectually nowhere near them. I find it incredibly flattering that a guy who got his Princeton math PhD at age 22 would actually want to date me.

As a feminist, I'm not sure what I think about this situation.

2. Dating is all about probabilities, and therefore stereotypes. Given my preference for smart men, there are lots of indicators of smartness, such as having advanced degrees and having attended an elite undergraduate college: such people are more likely to be compatible with me, though clearly people who do not have those attributes could also be compatible. Assuming that a degree from an elite school is only a signal of intelligence rather than adding any value to people (which as such a graduate, I think is a pretty reasonable assumption), given the choice between someone from a mid-rank school and someone from an elite school, the elite school person is a better bet. Say that 10% of the graduates of a middle-rank university could have gone to an elite school, but didn't. If the probability that an alum of an elite school is otherwise a good match is p, then the probability of someone from a middle-rank school is 0.1p, so without knowing anything else the elite school alum is a better bet. Still, there are way more people from middle-rank schools, so maybe eventually I'll get lucky if I keep dating them, especially if I go for populations from these schools which are themselves elite, like difficult majors.

I'm not an economist or decision theorist, and I know this model misses quite a lot, but they do have something with this signalling idea. The outcome, though, feels elitist.

3. Appearance matters, and there may be such a thing as too attractive. After dating a guy who was 5'6" and so sensitive about his height that he lied by 2 inches on his online dating profile, as well as reading a book about male height (Size Matters by Stephen Hall), I started noticing that people do seem to cluster by height. The median height of my friends at home (previous city) is considerably lower than the median height of another group of friends in the same social milieu.

Stephen Hall's book says that adolescent height determines some aspects of self-confidence, even for people who grow taller eventually. He's speaking more about men, but I think I must have experienced the female equivalent: height doesn't matter, but I know that in adolescence I was not the most socially skilled. To this day, I feel like some people are too cool for me, and I have to push myself to socialize with them in spite of my (almost certainly incorrect) assumption.

Nonetheless, I went on an early morning date this summer with a guy who was a terrific match on paper and we had a great email exchange and he said he was very excited to meet me (an expression of optimism which made it clear that he was new to online dating!), and yet literally the second that we met I knew it was wrong. He was tanned and muscular with a masculine jaw and neat hair, though he wasn't tall; wore a polo shirt, mirrored sunglasses, and neatly pressed khakis; and carried a black briefcase as if it were nothing. He was clearly good-looking and smart, and I can't say that there is a specific aspect of his appearance which is a give-away of non-compatibility, but somehow he is just not the type of person that I am used to hanging out with, and I wasn't the least bit attracted to him. Indeed, it turned out that we had mutual acquaintances, and one of his closer friends is someone that I've never felt like I had anything in common with. I am open to trying new things, and so I decided to make the most of this hour or so. I can usually make conversation with anyone, but the time crawled. I was determined to find points of connection, and apparently he was too because when exactly 45 minutes had elapsed, at 8:15 he said he had to go to work if he didn't want to be late. I know he must have been in particularly early that day, but I don't blame him for not continuing the torture. I didn't enjoy it much either.

So it is a funny paradox: in essence, this guy was too good-looking for me to be attracted to him.

This may be related to the fact that in some social venues such as after a department seminar, I'm very socially comfortable, and people say that I'm clearly an extrovert and they can't imagine that I would ever describe myself as shy (as do many politicians, apparently). In other social venues, such as a party with business school types, I feel shy. While I can still push myself out there to interact, I know that I have more signs of nervousness such as smiling and laughing too much, a higher voice, and tensed face/neck muscles, and am more likely to say totally inane things. I have no political ambitions, but I would like to be socially comfortable in all environments.

1 comment:

Chicago Man said...

Excellent post. Your story had me on the edge of my seat. I am a Ph.D. student in philosophy and will be going on the job market next fall. I doubt I will ever get married unless I can find a woman who can best me in an argument. (Am I elitist?) Why is it that when I say I tell a woman that i study philosophy she responds: "Most men are intimidated by me." I never quite know how to respond, but I'm thinking "I'm not the least bit impressed". Elitist? I just know I like someone who appreciates and understands not only philosophy but what it means to be an academic more generally. It would be nice to have someone read my papers and give critical feedback on them before i present them at conferences. No, I don't necessarily want to be with a philosopher, but perhaps someone in a related field. I'm still looking. I've dated lawyers, philosophers, teachers, psychologists, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I would like to meet someone who has no problem traveling, because you can bet the house that the road to Tenureville requires many stops along the way. I'm certain I will put your blog as one of my tabs for daily access. Keep blogging. I'm looking forward to the next update on dating.