Monday, February 11, 2008

"The Logic of Life"

Tim Harford writes “The Undercover Economist” column, which reveals the economic ideas behind everyday experiences, and runs a problem page called “Dear Economist,” in which Financial Times readers’ personal problems are answered tongue-in-cheek with the latest economic theory. He is the author of two books, The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life.

He applied the Page 69 Test to The Logic of Life and reported the following, opening with the text from Page...65:
It’s time to dispose of an age-old question. Do people spend their lives looking for “the one”, the person – or, less ambitiously, a particular type of person – who is the perfect match for them temperamentally, socially, professionally, financially and sexually? Or do people adjust their standards depending on what they can get? In other words, are the romantics right or the cynics?

I’ll admit that I can’t answer that question definitively – not even the most ingenious of today’s new generation of economists have devised an experiment that will prove whether people lower their sights in response to market conditions when it comes to marriage. But there is some suggestive evidence from the study of speed-dating, courtesy of the economists Michèle Belot and Marco Francesconi.

Speed-daters are able to propose to anyone and everyone they meet, and do so electronically after the event, so that the embarrassment of rejection is minimised. That should mean that, for most people, a proposal of a date is a simple, uncomplicated expression of approval and that nobody would propose a date they didn’t want accepted or hold back a proposal even though they wanted a date. Belot and Francesconi persuaded one of Britain’s largest dating agencies to release information about the activities of 1,800 men and 1,800 women who, over nearly two years, attended 84 speed-dating events. The researchers were able to see who went to which event, and who proposed to whom. It won’t surprise many people to hear that while women proposed a match to about one man in ten they met, men were a bit less choosy and proposed a match to twice as many women, with about half the success rate. Nor will it shock anyone to hear that tall men, slim women, nonsmokers and professionals received more offers. But what might raise the odd eyebrow is that it became clear from about 2,000 separate speed-dates (that’s 100 hours of stilted conversation) that people seemed systematically – and rationally – to change their standards depending on who showed up for the speed-date. They didn’t seem to be looking for “the one” at all.

For example, men prefer women who are not overweight. You might think, then, that if on a particular evening twice as many overweight women as usual show up, it will be a night where fewer men propose. Not at all. The men propose just as frequently, so that when twice as many overweight women turn up, twice as many overweight women receive offers of a date…

Okay, I wimped out of the p69 test. This is page 65. My excuse? Page 69 wouldn't make any sense to someone who hadn't read page 65, but page 65 certainly makes sense by itself. I think it is representative of the book, which shows how a new breed of economist has been doing unusual research to apply traditional economic ideas of competition and rational choice to some very unexpected subjects. If I am honest, this research is on the lighter side: other researchers are exploring crime, epidemics, urban decay, addictions and racism. But I have a soft spot for this story, because it is both so fascinating and yet so light-hearted.
Read excerpts from The Logic of Life, and learn more about the author and his work at Tim Harford's website and his blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue