Ever since her last relationship ended this past August, Liz has been consciously trying not to treat dating as a “numbers game.” By the 30-year-old Alaskan’s own admission, however, it hasn’t been going great.
Liz has been going on Tinder dates frequently, sometimes multiple times a week—one of her New Year’s resolutions was to go on every date she was invited on. But Liz, who asked to be identified only by her first name in order to avoid harassment, can’t escape a feeling of impersonal, businesslike detachment from the whole pursuit.
“It’s like, ‘If this doesn’t go well, there are 20 other guys who look like you in my inbox.’ And I’m sure they feel the same way—that there are 20 other girls who are willing to hang out, or whatever,” she said. “People are seen as commodities, as opposed to individuals.”
It’s understandable that someone like Liz might internalize the idea that dating is a game of probabilities or ratios, or a marketplace in which single people just have to keep shopping until they find “the one.” The idea that a dating pool can be analyzed as a marketplace or an economy is both recently popular and very old: For generations, people have been describing newly single people as “back on the market” and analyzing dating in terms of supply and demand. In 1960, the Motown act the Miracles recorded “Shop Around,” a jaunty ode to the idea of checking out and trying on a bunch of new partners before making a “deal.” The economist Gary Becker, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize, began applying economic principles to marriage and divorce rates in the early 1970s. More recently, a plethora of market-minded dating books are coaching singles on how to seal a romantic deal, and dating apps, which have rapidly become the mode du jour for single people to meet each other, make sex and romance even more like shopping.
The unfortunate coincidence is that the fine-tuned analysis of dating’s numbers game and the streamlining of its trial-and-error process of shopping around have taken place as dating’s definition has expanded from “the search for a suitable marriage partner” into something decidedly more ambiguous. Meanwhile, technologies have emerged that make the market more visible than ever to the average person, encouraging a ruthless mind-set of assigning “objective” values to potential partners and to ourselves—with little regard for the ways that framework might be weaponized. The idea that a population of single people can be analyzed like a market might be useful to some extent to sociologists or economists, but the widespread adoption of it by single people themselves can result in a warped outlook on love.
Moira Weigel, the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, argues that dating as we know it—single people going out together to restaurants, bars, movies, and other commercial or semicommercial spaces—came about in the late 19th century. “Almost everywhere, for most of human history, courtship was supervised. And it was taking place in noncommercial spaces: in homes, at the synagogue,” she said in an interview. “Somewhere where other people were watching. What dating does is it takes that process out of the home, out of supervised and mostly noncommercial spaces, to movie theaters and dance halls.” Modern dating, she noted, has always situated the process of finding love within the realm of commerce—making it possible for economic concepts to seep in.
The application of the supply-and-demand concept, Weigel said, may have come into the picture in the late 19th century, when American cities were exploding in population. “There were probably, like, five people your age in [your hometown],” she told me. “Then you move to the city because you need to make more money and help support your family, and you’d see hundreds of people every day.” When there are bigger numbers of potential partners in play, she said, it’s much more likely that people will begin to think about dating in terms of probabilities and odds.
Eva Illouz, directrice d’etudes (director of studies) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, who has written about the the application of economic principles to romance, agrees that dating started to be understood as a marketplace as courtship rituals left private spheres, but she thinks the analogy fully crystallized when the sexual revolution of the mid-20th century helped dissolve many lingering traditions and taboos around who could or should date whom. People began assessing for themselves what the costs or benefits of certain partnerships might be—a decision that used to be a family’s rather than an individual’s. “What you have is people meeting each other directly, which is exactly the situation of a market,” she said. “Everybody’s looking at everybody, in a way.”
In the modern era, it seems probable that the way people now shop online for goods—in virtual marketplaces, where they can easily filter out features they do and don’t want—has influenced the way people “shop” for partners, especially on dating apps, which often allow that same kind of filtering. The behavioral economics researcher and dating coach Logan Ury said in an interview that many single people she works with engage in what she calls “relationshopping.”
“People, especially as they get older, really know their preferences. So they think that they know what they want,” Ury said—and retroactively added quotation marks around the words “know what they want.” “Those are things like ‘I want a redhead who’s over 5’7”,’ or ‘I want a Jewish man who at least has a graduate degree.’” So they log in to a digital marketplace and start narrowing down their options. “They shop for a partner the way that they would shop for a camera or Bluetooth headphones,” she said.
But, Ury went on, there’s a fatal flaw in this logic: No one knows what they want so much as they believe they know what they want. Actual romantic chemistry is volatile and hard to predict; it can crackle between two people with nothing in common and fail to materialize in what looks on paper like a perfect match. Ury often finds herself coaching her clients to broaden their searches and detach themselves from their meticulously crafted “checklists.”
The fact that human-to-human matches are less predictable than consumer-to-good matches is just one problem with the market metaphor; another is that dating is not a one-time transaction. Let’s say you’re on the market for a vacuum cleaner—another endeavor in which you might invest considerable time learning about and weighing your options, in search of the best fit for your needs. You shop around a bit, then you choose one, buy it, and, unless it breaks, that’s your vacuum cleaner for the foreseeable future. You likely will not continue trying out new vacuums, or acquire a second and third as your “non-primary” vacuums. In dating, especially in recent years, the point isn’t always exclusivity, permanence, or even the sort of long-term relationship one might have with a vacuum. With the rise of “hookup culture” and the normalization of polyamory and open relationships, it’s perfectly common for people to seek partnerships that won’t necessarily preclude them from seeking other partnerships, later on or in addition. This makes supply and demand a bit harder to parse. Given that marriage is much more commonly understood to mean a relationship involving one-to-one exclusivity and permanence, the idea of a marketplace or economy maps much more cleanly onto matrimony than dating.
The marketplace metaphor also fails to account for what many daters know intuitively: that being on the market for a long time—or being off the market, and then back on, and then off again—can change how a person interacts with the marketplace. Obviously, this wouldn’t affect a material good in the same way. Families repeatedly moving out of houses, for example, wouldn’t affect the houses’ feelings, but being dumped over and over by a series of girlfriends might change a person’s attitude toward finding a new partner. Basically, ideas about markets that are repurposed from the economy of material goods don’t work so well when applied to sentient beings who have emotions. Or, as Moira Weigel put it, “It’s almost like humans aren’t actually commodities.”
When market logic is applied to the pursuit of a partner and fails, people can start to feel cheated. This can cause bitterness and disillusionment, or worse. “They have a phrase here where they say the odds are good but the goods are odd,” Liz said, because in Alaska on the whole there are already more men than women, and on the apps the disparity is even sharper. She estimates that she gets 10 times as many messages as the average man in her town. “It sort of skews the odds in my favor,” she said. “But, oh my gosh, I’ve also received a lot of abuse.”
Recently, Liz matched with a man on Tinder who invited her over to his house at 11 p.m. When she declined, she said, he called her 83 times later that night, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. And when she finally answered and asked him to stop, he called her a “bitch” and said he was “teaching her a lesson.” It was scary, but Liz said she wasn’t shocked, as she has had plenty of interactions with men who have “bubbling, latent anger” about the way things are going for them on the dating market. Despite having received 83 phone calls in four hours, Liz was sympathetic toward the man. “At a certain point,” she said, “it becomes exhausting to cast your net over and over and receive so little.”
This violent reaction to failure is also present in conversations about “sexual market value”—a term so popular on Reddit that it is sometimes abbreviated as “SMV”—which usually involve complaints that women are objectively overvaluing themselves in the marketplace and belittling the men they should be trying to date.
The logic is upsetting but clear: The (shaky) foundational idea of capitalism is that the market is unfailingly impartial and correct, and that its mechanisms of supply and demand and value exchange guarantee that everything is fair. It’s a dangerous metaphor to apply to human relationships, because introducing the idea that dating should be “fair” subsequently introduces the idea that there is someone who is responsible when it is unfair. When the market’s logic breaks down, it must mean someone is overriding the laws. And in online spaces populated by heterosexual men, heterosexual women have been charged with the bulk of these crimes.
“The typical clean-cut, well-spoken, hard-working, respectful, male” who makes six figures should be a “magnet for women,” someone asserted recently in a thread posted in the tech-centric forum Hacker News. But instead, the poster claimed, this hypothetical man is actually cursed because the Bay Area has one of the worst “male-female ratios among the single.” The responses are similarly disaffected and analytical, some arguing that the gender ratio doesn’t matter, because women only date tall men who are “high earners,” and they are “much more selective” than men. “This can be verified on practically any dating app with a few hours of data,” one commenter wrote.
Economic metaphors provide the language for conversations on Reddit with titles like “thoughts on what could be done to regulate the dating market,” and for a subreddit named sarcastically “Where Are All The Good Men?” with the stated purpose of “exposing” all the women who have “unreasonable standards” and offer “little to no value themselves.” (On the really extremist end, some suggest that the government should assign girlfriends to any man who wants one.) Which is not at all to say that heterosexual men are the only ones thinking this way: In the 54,000-member subreddit r/FemaleDatingStrategy, the first “principle” listed in its official ideology is “be a high value woman.” The group’s handbook is thousands of words long, and also emphasizes that “as women, we have the responsibility to be ruthless in our evaluation of men.”
The design and marketing of dating apps further encourage a cold, odds-based approach to love. While they have surely created, at this point, thousands if not millions of successful relationships, they have also aggravated, for some men, their feeling that they are unjustly invisible to women.
Men outnumber women dramatically on dating apps; this is a fact. A 2016 literature review also found that men are more active users of these apps—both in the amount of time they spend on them and the number of interactions they attempt. Their experience of not getting as many matches or messages, the numbers say, is real.
But data sets made available by the apps can themselves be wielded in unsettling ways by people who believe the numbers are working against them. A since-deleted 2017 blog post on the dating app Hinge’s official website explained an experiment conducted by a Hinge engineer, Aviv Goldgeier. Using the Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality within a country, and counting “likes” as income, Goldgeier determined that men had a much higher (that is, worse) Gini coefficient than women. With these results, Goldgeier compared the “female dating economy” to Western Europe and the “male dating economy” to South Africa. This is, obviously, an absurd thing to publish on a company blog, but not just because its analysis is so plainly accusatory and weakly reasoned. It’s also a bald-faced admission that the author—and possibly the company he speaks for—is thinking about people as sets of numbers.
In a since-deleted 2009 official blog post, an OkCupid employee’s data analysis showed women rating men as “worse-looking than medium” 80 percent of the time, and concluded, “Females of OkCupid, we site founders say to you: ouch! Paradoxically, it seems it’s women, not men, who have unrealistic standards for the opposite sex.” This post, more than a decade later, is referenced in men’s-rights or men’s-interest subreddits as “infamous” and “we all know it.”
Even without these creepy blog posts, dating apps can amplify a feeling of frustration with dating by making it seem as if it should be much easier. The Stanford economist Alvin Roth has argued that Tinder is, like the New York Stock Exchange, a “thick” market where lots of people are trying to complete transactions, and that the main problem with dating apps is simply congestion. To him, the idea of a dating market is not new at all. “Have you ever read any of the novels of Jane Austen?” he asked. “Pride and Prejudice is a very market-oriented novel. Balls were the internet of the day. You went and showed yourself off.”
Daters have—or appear to have—a lot more choices on a dating app in 2020 than they would have at a provincial dance party in rural England in the 1790s, which is good, until it’s bad. The human brain is not equipped to process and respond individually to thousands of profiles, but it takes only a few hours on a dating app to develop a mental heuristic for sorting people into broad categories. In this way, people can easily become seen as commodities—interchangeable products available for acquisition or trade. “What the internet apps do is that they enable you to see, for the first time ever in history, the market of possible partners,” Illouz, of École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, said. Or, it makes a dater think they can see the market, when really all they can see is what an algorithm shows them.
The idea of the dating market is appealing because a market is something a person can understand and try to manipulate. But fiddling with the inputs—by sending more messages, going on more dates, toggling and re-toggling search parameters, or even moving to a city with a better ratio—isn’t necessarily going to help anybody succeed on that market in a way that’s meaningful to them.
Last year, researchers at Ohio State University examined the link between loneliness and compulsive use of dating apps—interviewing college students who spent above-average time swiping—and found a terrible feedback loop: The lonelier you are, the more doggedly you will seek out a partner, and the more negative outcomes you’re likely to be faced with, and the more alienated from other people you will feel. This happens to men and women in the same way.
“We found no statistically significant differences for gender at all,” the lead author, Katy Coduto, said in an email. “Like, not even marginally significant.”
There may always have been a dating market, but today people’s belief that they can see it and describe it and control their place in it is much stronger. And the way we speak becomes the way we think, as well as a glaze to disguise the way we feel. Someone who refers to looking for a partner as a numbers game will sound coolly aware and pragmatic, and guide themselves to a more odds-based approach to dating. But they may also suppress any honest expression of the unbearably human loneliness or desire that makes them keep doing the math.