Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Image: Joaquin Phoenix in Her © Warner Bros Pictures

Why your hot friends are ruining your love life: avoiding the pitfalls of modern dating

Dating's always been a pretty complicated business. Just like economics! But what have the two things got to do with each other? Olivia Wills explains all and provides a few handy tips along the way...

We've all made some bad choices in our love lives, right? A text we wish we hadn't sent, a date we shouldn't have gone on, swiping right when we meant to swipe left. Modern dating's a pretty daunting business. Well, here's some rather different advice based - believe it or not - on what I've learnt while studying economics.

Initial attraction

Zac Efron
How you doin'?

Picture the scene. You catch someone’s eye at a bar. They're in a group of people, but something about them stands out. Is it the twinkle in their eye? The way they laugh? Or is it just that they’re more attractive in comparison to the people around them?

It's probably the latter, because when people are in groups they tend to appear more attractive than in isolation - something called the group attractiveness effect. Basically, it's this...

What's more, if there are two people who seem pretty similar, but one has the edge looks wise, they’ll appear the best of the whole bunch, because there's a much easier comparison to be made - something called the decoy effect.

To see how this works, consider a rather less romantic scenario. A magazine offers customers the following subscription options:

Online only: $59
Print only: $125
Print and online: $125

Clearly, choosing ‘print only’ would be crazy. You’d be throwing away the online access. With these options, a study of exactly this offer found that 84% of people chose ‘print and online’, and only 16% ‘online only’.

Not one person picked ‘print only’. And why would they? It's such a silly option, it makes you wonder why it's even there? So, what if it wasn’t?

Online only: $59
Print and online: $125

What would you choose now? When the ‘print only’ option was left out, 32% chose ‘print and online’, and 68% chose ‘online only’. Now the ‘print and online’ option seems much less attractive. The ‘print only’ option was only there to make the combined deal look better - it was the slightly less attractive wingman.

Both the group attractiveness effect and the decoy effect are what's known as cognitive biases, and inform a field of study called which takes psychological insights about us and applies them to the kind of economic choices we make.

So, here’s top dating tip #1

Go out as much as possible in groups, and try and take a sibling with you - as long as you’re the slightly better looking one.

The follow-up text

Right, so this shit just got real. You actually exchanged numbers with that hottie at the bar. Now you have the digits, who’s gonna text first?

A man in a car reads a text on his phone
You're gr8

Yes, it's that text we dread - you know the one that you spend all night editing, deleting, rewriting, then leave sitting there in drafts. Here are the possible outcomes:

1) You text them and they text back, hella into your vibes - Yasss

2) You text them, but they don't respond - Awkward

3) You're both into it, but neither of you step up to send that first message - Zero Chill

4) You avoid the whole situation and don't text at all - Back to Tinder

Hey, no one said dating wasn’t complicated.

Right, here's how an economist might handle it - with something they call a payoff matrix.

Basically, they’d assess your situation based on how happy you'd be if you do/don't text the babe from the bar, by making a table like the one below. So, 10 is butterflies exploding out your stomach (you’ve found the one). 0 is soul-crushing rejection of the most brutal kind.

Them Them
'Why aren't they texting me?' 'I hope I never hear from them'
You Text 10 0
You Don't text 3 5

According to this, the best outcome depends on how the person at the bar is likely to respond. If they want to see you again, texting them is the best option. But if they don't, you'd be better off not getting in touch. Either way, you're reliant on their response.

This idea of relying on others' decisions for the best outcome relates to an economic concept called game theory. It’s been applied to many political situations in the past, including policies of nuclear deterrence, and the decision for Greece to stay in the EU.

So, here’s top dating tip #2

The numbers are in your favor, so text them. Text them now! OK, maybe not now, but think of it like this - consider the happiness of finding the one vs the embarrassment of being ignored. The trade off is worth it. You can literally do the math: 10 + 0 = 10, whereas 3 + 5 = 8. Texting wins!

Perhaps don’t let them find your payoff matrix though. Not sure this counts as playing it cool.


Congrats! You've made it through the first awkward texts and have had a some amazing dates. Looks like there's a 'Netflix and chill' on the horizon.

But even if it has gone well, you still face the age old question: to delete Tinder, or not to delete Tinder?

I mean, what if you're a quick right swipe away from finding someone better? Or dare we say it... maybe even the one!

Decisions like this are actually used in the job market all the time. When interviewing potential employees, employers might think they've found a brilliant candidate, but what if a better one is about to apply? Do they jump the gun?

A 2010 study found that fussier employers and job seekers contribute to greater unemployment. So deleting your profile is a better option. Sticking with someone you like is probably better than risking the wait for a perfect partner, who may not even exist.

Finally, here’s top dating tip #3

If it’s a good fit, don’t be afraid to commit!


So there it is. How to find true love, according to economic theory.

In short, always take someone slightly less good looking with you when you’re out on the pull, always text first no matter whether they like you or not, and don’t give up on a good thing just because you think there might be someone even better round the corner. There probably isn’t.

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