Isn’t economics wonderful? It gives answers to all important questions in life. It even provides the tools for ‘understanding the preferences underlying the search for a mate’. Or in other words, an economist goes to a bar and solves the mysteries of dating.

At a local bar just off the Columbia campus, Raymond Fisman ran a speed-dating experiment with two psychologists, Sheena Iyengar and Itamar Simonson, and fellow economist Emir Kamenica. Some of their findings confirm the well known clichés, stereotypes and prejudices, other findings are more surprising:

We found that men did put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner’s beauty, when choosing, than women did. We also found that women got more dates when they won high marks for looks from research assistants, who were hired for the much sought-after position of hanging out in a bar to rate the dater’s level of attractiveness on a scale of one to 10.

By contrast, intelligence ratings were more than twice as important in predicting women’s choices as men’s. It isn’t exactly that smarts were a complete turnoff for men: They preferred women whom they rated as smarter—but only up to a point. In a survey we did before the speed dating began, participants rated their own intelligence levels, and it turns out that men avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves. The same held true for measures of career ambition—a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.

When women were the ones choosing, the more intelligence and ambition the men had, the better. So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own. Women, on the other hand, care more about how men think and perform, and they don’t mind being outdone on those scores.

A forthcoming paper by the authors is also taking race into account:

Women of all the races we studied revealed a strong preference for men of their own race: White women were more likely to choose white men; black women preferred black men; East Asian women preferred East Asian men; Hispanic women preferred Hispanic men. But men don’t seem to discriminate based on race when it comes to dating. A woman’s race had no effect on the men’s choices.

Two wrinkles on this: We found no evidence of the stereotype of a white male preference for East Asian women. However, we also found that East Asian women did not discriminate against white men (only against black and Hispanic men). As a result, the white man-Asian woman pairing was the most common form of interracial dating—but because of the women’s neutrality, not the men’s pronounced preference. We also found that regional differences mattered. Daters of both sexes from south of the Mason-Dixon Line revealed much stronger same-race preferences than Northern daters.

Summarising: men don’t discriminate on race in their search for female companionship, as long as the woman looks good and does not pose a threat to their ego.

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