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Game Theory and the Shidduch Crisis

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The shidduch business is big bucks.  From JDate to expensive shadchanim, people are willing to pay almost anything to get married.  And it makes sense; who wouldn’t invest a couple of hundred or thousand dollars in order to have a happier, more fulfilled life with the one you love.  Surely the investment is worthwhile.  But if these avenues work, why are less women finding their soulmate?

A year and a half ago, financial write Mark Gimein wrote and article on for slate.com trying to solve the “eligible bachelor paradox” – why it seems there are always more available women than men.

“The problem of the eligible bachelor is one of the great riddles of social life. Shouldn’t there be about as many highly eligible and appealing men as there are attractive, eligible women?

Actually, no—and here’s why. Consider the classic version of the marriage proposal: A woman makes it known that she is open to a proposal, the man proposes, and the woman chooses to say yes or no. The structure of the proposal is not, “I choose you.” It is, “Will you choose me?” A woman chooses to receive the question and chooses again once the question is asked.

The idea of the woman choosing expressed in the proposal is a resilient one. The woman picking among suitors is a rarely reversed archetype of romantic love that you’ll find everywhere from Jane Austen to Desperate Housewives. Or take any comic wedding scene: Invariably, it’ll have the man standing dazed at the altar, wondering just how it is he got there.

Obviously, this is simplified—in contemporary life, both sides get plenty of chances to be selective. But as a rough-and-ready model, it’s not bad, and it contains a solution to the Eligible-Bachelor Paradox.

You can think of this traditional concept of the search for marriage partners as a kind of an auction. In this auction, some women will be more confident of their prospects, others less so. In game-theory terms, you would call the first group “strong bidders” and the second “weak bidders.” Your first thought might be that the “strong bidders”—women who (whether because of looks, social ability, or any other reason) are conventionally deemed more of a catch—would consistently win this kind of auction.

But this is not true. In fact, game theory predicts, and empirical studies of auctions bear out, that auctions will often be won by “weak” bidders, who know that they can be outbid and so bid more aggressively, while the “strong” bidders will hold out for a really great deal… But you can also see how this works intuitively if you just consider that with a lot at stake in getting it right in one shot, it’s the women who are confident that they are holding a strong hand who are likely to hold out and wait for the perfect prospect.

This is how you come to the Eligible-Bachelor Paradox, which is no longer so paradoxical. The pool of appealing men shrinks as many are married off and taken out of the game, leaving a disproportionate number of men who are notably imperfect (perhaps they are short, socially awkward, underemployed). And at the same time, you get a pool of women weighted toward the attractive, desirable “strong bidders.”

Where have all the most appealing men gone? Married young, most of them—and sometimes to women whose most salient characteristic was not their beauty, or passion, or intellect, but their decisiveness.

… for whatever socially constructed reason, the choice of getting married is one in which the woman is usually the key player. It might be the man who’s supposed to ask the official, down-on-the-knee question, but it usually comes after a woman has made the central decision. Of course, in this, as in all matters of love, your experience may vary.

There may be those who look at this and try to derive some sort of prescription, about when to “bid,” when to hold out, and when (as this Atlantic story urges) to “settle.” If you’re inclined to do that, approach with care. Game theory deals with how best to win the prize, but it works only when you can decide what’s worth winning.”

In short: the greatest factor in a woman’s ability to get married is not her looks, nor her charm, but her ability to be decisive.

Back when I was a teacher in Chicago, one of my colleagues once told me that one of the biggest challenges today is that people do not know how to make a decision.  They judge decisions based on how they will turn out instead of the best decision they can make at the time and put themselves into an endless pool of “what if” that keeps them indecisive and unable to move forward in life.  Perhaps tackling this challenge may help us come closer to solving the Shidduch crisis.

This is surely not a simple issue.  In fact, when this the article quoted above was published, it sparked what I consider to be one of the most interesting and productive conversations I have even seen on the internet.  What do you think?


5 Comments

  1. I once heard a lecture on game theory with the following hypothesis: You have 100 women in a room. At the end of the evening they will go home with 100 men, in pairs. The men write a number on a card indicating their choice. If only one man picks a particular woman, she is his. If a few men pick the same woman, she chooses among them. Let’s say Angelina Jolie is one of the women. The men will be afraid to pick her, because everyone else will (a key element of game theory–what will everyone else do?). So they pick the next loveliest. Then a self-confident jerk ends up with Jolie because he’s the only one who was brave enough to choose her. It was quite entertaining, and he showed why very attractive women are often not asked out.

  2. Genius says:

    I remember reading that article and experiencing a small epiphany: It makes a great deal of sense. To what he wrote I’d add that a man’s appeal to women starts out very low and slowly, steadily increases until middle age, at which point it usually begins a steady decline (though it can continue to increase if he’s of high enough status). A woman’s appeal to men starts out high and peaks in her mid 20s, after which it declines rapidly, with very harsh deterioration after she hits 30.

    Nature plays a nasty trick on boys, especially those of us who were imperfect adolescents. But the cruelest turn is for those girls who ignored us while they were the center of the universe and we were on the periphery. After a few years, they often find themselves wondering what happened. What happened is that nature intervened.

    The so-called “singles crisis” / “shidduch crisis” or however it’s now going to be called would be over tomorrow if today someone would take responsibility for explaining the above facts of nature to a generation of adolescent girls.

  3. Miriam says:

    Must say, a little puzzled how this particular theory will save money…

    • jonnydegani says:

      game theory is an offshoot of finance and economics; I occasionally dabble. To be honest though, if we could figure out what really is behind the shiduch crisis, it probably would save people thousands of dollars in what is currently spent in the matchmaking world.

  4. […] Shekalim has a great post about the shidduch crisis and game theory on which I commented, but thought I’d continue writing here. He asks: “To be honest […]

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