On choosing and settling

A couple of articles recently addressed the issues of women choosing their mates.

From The Atlantic:

My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

Obviously, I wasn’t always an advocate of settling. In fact, it took not settling to make me realize that settling is the better option, and even though settling is a rampant phenomenon, talking about it in a positive light makes people profoundly uncomfortable. Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment, the way a child might look at an older sibling who just informed her that Jerry’s Kids aren’t going to walk, even if you send them money. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American. Our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize (while our mothers, who know better, tell us not to be so picky), and the theme of holding out for true love (whatever that is—look at the divorce rate) permeates our collective mentality.

One of the points she makes is that settling is, in fact, a “rampant phenomenon”. I’d argue that that most people who got married settled in some way. No one can get every single thing they want. It all depends on which aspects/characteristics you are willing to “settle”. A more politically correct term might be “compromise”. Once you call it compromise, you are safe. No one is going to look at you like a freak when you say “relationships are based on compromise”!

Of course, the counter is that the article is written assuming that the woman wants to have kids – an assumption that is not always accurate. In a recent conversation with a girlfriend, she explained that she’d rather wait and find someone who she can have a great life with rather than get married now in order to beat the biological clock and increase her chances of having kids. A wonderful life without kids would, in fact, be wonderful. How can you argue with that?

Slate talks about how women are the ones who are doing the choosing even though, traditionally, the man is the one who proposes:

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.

And if, like me, you know a ton of great single women in their thirties but only very few great single guys in the same age bracket, Slate uses game theory to explain why that is in fact the case:

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. You can find a technical discussion of this here. (Be warned: “Bidding Behavior in Asymmetric Auctions” is not for everyone, and I certainly won’t claim to have a handle on all the math.) 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.

Both articles touch of topics of conversation I’ve had with friends over the years… Interesting reading.

  • Eileen

    Oh crap – I’m doomed. 🙂

  • Amazed to see a post on game theory & marriage – a chapter of my dissertation was on this very topic (with the opposite conclusion, by the way).

    I don’t think the Slate author really understood the auction paper cited, though: “strong” and “weak” bidders aren’t necessarily high-quality or low-quality _themselves_ – they’re just drawn from higher and lower probability distributions. It’s not clear what the corollary would be for for men or women…

    The question is also begged: why isn’t the symmetrical statement true for men? (The implication – that better and worse men are roughly the same in terms of decisiveness, whereas good women are for some reason a lot less decisive than women who aren’t as good – seems odd.)

  • Ricky

    math geek version of “Sex and the City”. This made my day.

    So many different things to think about and comment on. This is a bit of stream of conscious comments.

    1) Consider that in my twenties, I attended lots of friends weddings. Now, in my thirties, there is a wave of divorces. Clearly getting married was not really true exit from the pool. People didn’t get divorces just because of bad marriage. Usually there is a bad marriage AND a better choice.

    2) Women doing the choosing makes perfect sense to me. I hope this is not too commercial of an example, but consider a house. Seller puts up a “for sale” sign, gets (hopefully) multiple bids, then selects the ideal buyer. The seller gets two choices. This is similar to marriage proposal situations.

    3) Continuing with the real estate example, has the great single woman in the thirties initially “priced” themselves out of the market, by having too long/high of a checklist for an acceptable suitor. As the length of days on the market increases, the perceived desirability decreases to an potential suitor.

    4) A Princess wants a Prince (don’t want to settle for less). A Prince might or might not want a Princess. So the pool for the Princess is actually quite small (Only the Prince that wants a Princess). Will the Princess have better luck kissing lots of frogs and hopefully one of them turn into a Prince or wait until someone else turns the frog into a Prince. Or wait until the frog turn itself into a Prince. Either way, Prince is not born overnight.

    5) In the end, I agree with the “The Atlantic”. SETTLE! You take the chance that your choices is less than ideal now, but over the long run a big portion of your initial checklist is wrong or invalidate. I certain couldn’t have predicted what matters to me now 10 years ago. And the things that really matter before seems quite trivial. So take Atlantic’s advice. Take your mother’s advice. Settle is the way to go for happy marriage. 🙂

    Again, great articles.. lots of things to think about.

  • Shripriya

    @Eileen – hardly. A high-quality woman like you will never be doomed 🙂

    @Erik – I thought of you when I saw the game theory bit 🙂 Loved the more detailed thought-process on your blog. For others – it is here: http://erikstuart.com/post/33044873

    @Ricky – great examples re: the house. I struggle with the “settle” conclusion. It seems to broad. I guess it is all a matter of degree… settling/compromising over smaller things (or a whole bunch of smaller things) seems fine to me, but settling on a “larger” issue just to get married seems… desperate. But then it comes down to what’s smaller/larger for each person.
    Glad you enjoyed the articles!

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