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Posts Tagged ‘urban dating’

Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, explains how having a large number of choices, in certain circumstances, can increase the stress people endure as they choose, and reduce their happiness with their choice after making it. Beyond a certain point, people aren’t more satisfied when they have more choice, but more restless. They’d be happier with fewer options.

The gist of the argument is like this. Let’s say that there are three flavors of ice cream available. When choosing, one doesn’t expect to be blown away by one’s selection, as there are only three options. The ice cream will be good, but one doesn’t feel personally responsible if it isn’t great. Very good is good enough. Not only that, but one can sample all of the available flavors within a reasonable amount of time and figure out what one prefers. If there are 67 flavors, one’s expectations are higher, and one simply cannot try all of them out. One never knows if something better isn’t out there. Even choosing an “optimal” option, at this point, becomes very difficult. Most people are used to making pairwise comparisons and struggle to choose a “best” out of so many alternatives. (In fact, when people are asked to rank more than 4 or 5 choices, their ordering is usually heavily influenced by order of presentation, making their rankings suspect.)

Dating, in a large city, has the same problem. With a lot of choices, it seems like one can always “upgrade”, and people of both genders seem to have adopted this belief. I’m not even completely confident that I’m free of this toxic attitude. It leads to a very crass dating environment, in which relationships are viewed as disposable– something that can be thrown out if it doesn’t “hold the room together”. Some people even sleep with multiple people concurrently, which this author finds disgusting and immoral. The frenetic, impulsive chaos that has been made of the dating environment makes everyone– except for the alpha males and sluts who, like cockroaches, thrive in damaged environments– unhappy. On the other hand, it’s difficult to argue that “choice” is a bad thing, especially on this matter. One’s selection of marital partner is the most important decision one will make, so it’s good to be a bit choosy. Anyway, one of the predominant reasons young people move to large cities is to have so much choice in dating. Certainly, this is one of my reasons for living in the city. Is this not, then, what we asked for?

Well, no. The truth is that much of this “choice” is illusory. In a large city, one might see hundreds of attractive people in a day, but how does one approach them all? It can’t be done. It would waste too much energy for very little benefit. With reasonably peeled eyes and decent small talk, it might be possible for a man to get 3-10 attractive girls’ numbers in a week, without going out of his way. How many will call back? Very, very few. Possibly zero. Believing that something better is always around the corner, urban women are essentially incapable of taking a new person seriously. (Men are somewhat better, but no saints either.)

The many-choices, window-shopping model of dating never worked, but it fails especially badly when most of those choices don’t really exist. For both men and women, they add stress and make people unhappy, and they still disrupt relationships, in spite of not being real options. A man is presented, in a large city, by an inexhaustible stream of attractive women, although 99% of them are inaccessible or will refuse to take him seriously. It doesn’t matter if he’s good-looking, smart, or wealthy. The experience is universal. Urban women likewise struggle to enter committed relationships– and let’s be un-PC and honest here, men loathe women with such attitudes and discard them without remorse– believing there are many more suitors out there than there actually are.

Eventually, most men realize that they’re being enticed with “shiny shit!!!” and that there is no substance to any of it. I’d imagine that women face a similar problem– a stream of male attention, most of it from low-quality men or men who aren’t serious. The result is frustration, wasted energy, and deep unhappiness. Scaled up to the aggregate, it brings about a landscape of empty and pointless dating, in which people are never satisfied or secure, always looking out for something “better”, and always aware that the other person is doing the same.

Schwartz describes two behaviors people face when presented with copious choice. One is maximizing, or trying to choose the best option. Feasible when the number of options is small and the problem is well-defined, it fails when the number of options is large and the problem is complicated, such as in dating. The other is satisficing, where the objective is to find a choice that is good enough. Satisficers tend, in general, to be happier people. It’s important to note that satisficing is not settling, as a satisficer continues searching until finding a choice meeting his or her standards; he or she just has no concern with getting “the best”. I wouldn’t, of course, advocate full-on settling in dating– people shouldn’t shack up with people who don’t make them happy, just to be attached– but the maximizer’s strategy is clearly impractical as well. We have to “satisfice”, given the impossibility of maximizing in the dating process, and the very high costs involved with being too picky. (I’d rather meet a “98%” match at 26 than a “99%” match at 55.)

The most important thing to understand in making a complex choice is search cost. In crude economic terms, one’s benefit (“utility”) equals the quality (Q) of one’s choice, minus all search costs (C) incurred in finding and making it, or U = Q – C. Eventually, marginal improvements in Q are offset by massive increases in C. In dating, these costs are the time and emotional energy dumped into the process. The costs– both to the individual and to society– are massive, considering the emotional (“baggage”) and sexual (high “numbers”) wreckage resulting from widespread and pervasive failure. To reduce them, people have attempted to develop shortcuts, none of which have worked very well. For example, speed dating is more civilized than the bar scene, but generally a fail. (I’ll address it in a later post.) A more crass shortcut is high-frequency, commoditized combat dating designed for quick filtering on social status. For example, women “shit test” men as a quick means of assessing the man’s “alpha” status, increasing the rapidity with which they can sift through potential suitors. Shit testing reduces the women’s search costs, but unfortunately, merely externalizes them. By instilling in men the (highly disadvantageous) suspicion that women are nasty, crass creatures, the shit-testing woman shifts her emotional search costs onto the men she dates. Men, of course, have their own bullshit behaviors that serve to externalize their costs onto women. Everyone ends up losing.

I feel a need to state an obvious truth about the dating mess. “Something better” is often an illusion. Most of the choice presented is only “shiny shit!!!” in the end. There’s no such thing as the “best” person for anyone, because another person’s dating “quality” is dynamic. People change, as do relationships. This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t hold out for genuine love, but it does mean that holding out for “the best” or “the alpha” is patently ridiculous. No, you’ll never find a man with all his good qualities and 3 inches more of height. You’ll never find a blouse-filling version of that small-breasted, otherwise ideal girl. You can take the “hold out for perfection or die trying” attitude, but I can predict which of those will happen first. This is true even in New York, where the world’s a subway and apparent choices fly by with blinding speed. Accept it.

More to that point, wrecking oneself, others, and the entire dating environment in the hope of making one’s search go a little bit faster, or to find someone a little bit more “alpha”/”HB10″ish, is not a good idea. It’s one of the major reasons urban combat dating exists. If people weren’t so unrefined, brutish and crude, the dating scene would be a lot less horrible. The process might even be fun, instead of a source of stress and loathing. Then “searching” might not be such a miserable chore, and people might not be so nervous and miserable about the whole process. Search costs would become lower, and that’s not an abstraction. If we treated each other better, we’d have less “baggage” and clearer heads. We’d end up making better choices, and that would be good for everyone.

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Here I describe the average-case life trajectory of a very average young professional female in Manhattan.

September 21, 2009: Sarah’s 28. She double-majored in biology and history at Brown University, and now has a high five-figure job in advertising. Sex and the City inspired her to come to New York. She came to the city after graduating from college, and has lived here since. She’s attractive, intelligent, and sociable. She has a large number of friends, and she’s never alone on a Friday night. Finding men poses no challenge for her, but the right man seems out of reach. He has to (1) make more money than she does, (2) have a prestigious educational pedigree, (3) have important friends, (4) not be full of himself, (5) not be religious, but not too atheist either, and (6) be exceptional in the sack. Plenty of men are available to Sarah who meet criteria 1-3, but they tend to fail #4. Finance guys are usually boring douchebags. Consultants are never around. Doctors want to get married too soon. Men in real estate? Sarah’s sown a few wild oats, but she’s not that slutty.

Enter Aaron Wright. Mr. Wright is a 32-year-old (Michigan B.A. ’99, Harvard M.B.A. ’04) whose career in quantitative finance ended last year with the market crash. Laid off in March 2008, he spent the summer backpacking in Asia, returning in July 2008 to join a venture capital firm where a few of his friends went after B-school. He works only fifty hours per week, and loves his job. Six-foot-two, handsome, and outgoing, he can easily “work a room”. He projects social dominance when he needs it. Yet he never comes off as overbearing or arrogant, as years of traveling have lent him a genuine humility and sensitivity to the needs of others. His politics? Mostly libertarian, but politely liberal, he voted for Bush in 2000, Kerry in 2004, and Obama in 2008. (Although Sarah pretends to hate his decision to vote for Bush in 2000, there’s something about Republican heartlessness that she considers masculine– sexy, even.) Religion? With a Jewish mother and Episcopalian father, he was raised in two religious traditions. He now attends an upscale Episcopalian Church irregularly, but is mostly agnostic. Perfect, Sarah decides.

Sarah and Mr. Wright met through mutual friends, early in May. They became “exclusive” in July. It’s now September 21, and Sarah is pretty sure this man is “the one”. He has the ideal combination of “alpha” social presence and “beta” sensitivity. Only one thing is odd: they’ve grown very close, and Sarah slept in Mr. Wright’s apartment once, but they haven’t had sex yet. This fateful Monday, Sarah decides that it’s time. In the evening, she invites Aaron to her apartment, they drink some wine, and he opens up.

Mr. Wright: “I’d love to sleep with you, Sarah, but I have something to confess.”

Sarah: “What?”

Mr. Wright: “Well, I’ve been working very hard for most of my life, and haven’t always had time for relationships, so I’m not as experienced as you might think.”

Sarah: “You’re a virgin?”

Mr. Wright: “No, but I don’t believe in sex outside of a committed relationship, and I’ve only had two of those. So I haven’t had sex in three years, and I’ve only slept with two women.”

Sarah: “Oh…”

Sarah doesn’t know what to make of this. A 32-year-old with a “number” of two is practically a virgin, from her perspective. This sort of man would have been ideal, in her eyes, when she was 16. But she’s not 16 anymore and, having had casual sex a few times, she’s had to tell herself all the ridiculous lies that casual sexers tell themselves to feel better about their behavior– that chaste women are frigid prudes and that chaste men are socially inept and horrible in bed. Mr. Wright, noticing Sarah’s sudden discomfort, becomes slightly worried.

Mr. Wright: “How many men have you been with?”

Sarah is well-versed in how a woman “should” discuss her past if a potential husband asks. She subtracts all the one-night stands and regretted relationships from her actual number.

Sarah: “Oh, three or four.”

Mr. Wright: “Four, then? So only in relationships, I assume.”

She’s caught in a lie, and she knows it. (Author’s note: In real life, she might be able to hold the lie for months, or even years. I know that women aren’t actually this dumb.)

Sarah: “Well… okay, more than four.”

Mr. Wright: “How many? I won’t judge you.” (Author’s note: Riiight…)

Sarah’s full sexual history: 3 boyfriends from relationships lasting more than 6 months. Normal. No problem. She’s had flings, one of which was an earnest attempt at a relationship that nevertheless failed early and explosively, and two of which were rebound relationships with no intention of permanence. She broke off all of those flings, each in an extremely rude way. Then there are three one-night stands– her first sexual encounter, at 16, was with an unemployed man then twice her age; one was in college (sophomore year, early winter) with a frat boy; and the third was at age 26 during a grinding dry spell, when she was “too busy for relationships”. She’s never cheated, technically speaking, although her college one-nighter occurred two days after breaking up with a long-term boyfriend, and everyone found out about it. Her total number is 9.

Sarah does not consider herself a slut. Sluts, in her mind, are those actively seek casual sex, those who have it a lot more often than she does, and those who are proud and vocal about having casual sex. Sarah has a clear definition of a slut and, by her definition, she’s not one. (Author’s note: I tend to agree with Sarah: she’s not a slut. She’s a worse-than-average modern woman, but I wouldn’t describe her as a slut. She’s just badly behaved.)

Confronted with the revelation of Sarah’s past, Mr. Wright is taken aback. He has spent 32 years doing the right thing– studying hard, getting good grades, working late, refraining from excessive drug use– in order to achieve his ideal future. Believing his future wife would be displeased by a string of casual encounters, he also abstained from casual sex. At this moment, he remembers the darkest and most trying point of his life. It was in the small hours of January 21, 2000– his twenty-third birthday– when he nearly surrendered his goal of becoming a venture capitalist. He hated New York– a city with frigid winters, where he had no friends. He was less than a year out of college, and he loathed his job– he was an analyst at an investment bank; the work was boring and the hours were brutal. A virgin to this point, he questioned his decision to pursue academic excellence in lieu of college “fun”, i.e. binge drinking and the pursuit of women. This is what I worked my ass off for? THIS? Taking a 3:00 am cab ride out to Brooklyn after a 19-hour work day, he was pretty sure that in five hours, he’d be resigning from Wall Street forever. No more rat-race, no more half-dead cab rides through the black, polluted Manhattan air. The stark, lonely aura of the Financial District at night would become a distant, nostalgic memory. His parents would let him live at home and regain his bearings, so long as he did his share of the housework.

When Aaron arrived at his tiny Brooklyn loft, he felt queasy and weak, as if he had lost a fight. His muscles ached and he could feel his heartbeat, throbbing, on the inside of his left knee. As soon as he sat down on his couch, he crashed. He hadn’t set an alarm clock, but who cares about being on time for a job that one is about to quit? Nonetheless, he arose naturally at 7:20. The winter sun had barely risen, but the sky was the clearest he had ever seen it. Outside, it was certainly very cold, but at least it was beautiful. Aaron, a freshly 23-year-old nobody, brushed his teeth, skipped the shower, suited up and went to work. He felt a bit better, and was determined not to collapse entirely, not to flunk out of his job. He could resign from his analyst position, but implosion was not an option. His only motivation for enduring analyst hell was the two-year track to business school; he could take a less impressive job and a 3- or 4-year track. He decided to resign in a more measured and polite way. He collected his bonus on June 30, and tendered his resignation, effective August 15, the next day. He was let go immediately, but given an excellent reference. He used his bonus to travel for four months, returned to the United States, and took a programming job in Silicon Valley. (Author’s note: sorry for the “Aaron’s career” diversion– ’twas boring– but I can’t have a semi-sympathetic character spend two years in I-banking.)

That night in January, when Aaron nearly lost hope, could have derailed his career. It was the point where he stared into the hibernal abyss, and nothing but a few drifting snowflakes stared back. At the same moment, Sarah was in college. At a party. Getting split open by a beer-breathed fraternity brother.

Part 2

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