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The Matching Problem in Dating
How app-dating accelerated the matching problem
In previous pieces we talked about population decline and the decline of marriage.
In this piece we’ll talk about what’s led to that, with a specific deep dive on app-dating.
Even before online dating, there were factors that created less dependence between men and women. The sexual revolution meant men and women no longer needed to depend on marriage for sex. The economic revolution meant that men and women no longer needed to depend on each other to pay their bills. Both of these things have led to tremendous benefits for both genders, but they’ve also contributed to the decrease in marriages.
In a past Moment of Zen episode with Amjad Masad, we talked about how the below average men are struggling to find relationships. Dan explained that the reason so many men are not finding relationships is because they’re not doing well enough economically to be attractive to women. He claimed that economic changes were more important than culture changes in explaining the divergence. I remarked that dating apps have also changed the cultural dynamics of dating, but I wasn’t specific about how. So that’s what I’ll unpack in this piece…
Before online dating, the available dating pool was just the people in your town: the people at your local bar, at your church, at your office, etc. Online dating expanded that pool by orders of magnitude, which changed how we think about dating in general. Which makes sense: When people have millions of people to choose from instead of hundreds, lots of things start to change.
First, preferences get formalized. 90% of swipes by women are for men over 6’0, which does not reflect the importance women place on height in the real world. This also makes sense: When people only spend 2-3 seconds per app, superficial qualities rise to the top.
Online dating also changes our expectations regarding relationships more broadly. Since we now date outside of our circles, it’s now easier to cheat or ghost or just otherwise leave if the relationship isn’t perfect. Why stay in a non-perfect relationship, the logic goes, when there are millions of other potential matches at your fingertips?
This perhaps explains why breakup rates for couples who meet via apps are twice as high as couples who meet via friends and family. Friends and family not only refer better, but there's a higher incentive to stay in a relationship when there’s the social encouragement of family and friends.
What online dating does is enable hypergamy at a massive scale. Hypergamy is the tendency for women to want to date the best men, no matter where the woman is in the hierarchy. Men also want top women of course, but they’re on average willing to settle for any woman, at least for casual sex, whereas women are much more discerning, which makes sense given women have a much bigger risk than men when it comes to sex, since women can get pregnant. It’s basic biology: Sperm is cheap, eggs are expensive.
What we see with algorithmic online dating isn't a mechanism to assign the perfect match to each person of the opposite sex. Instead, we've created a machine where the top 20% of men mate with many different partners and the top 80% women try to get the top 20% of men to date and ultimately marry them (and not just have sex with them).
Algorithmic dating conflates two markets, the market for relationships and the market for sex under the ambiguous banner of "dating." What happens then is men on apps try to match with as many women as possible and women try to match with a small selection of higher status men. That leads to the situation where a dating app's natural equilibrium is that a narrow set of men have "dating" access to almost all the women if they choose to, and they typically do. Even with the best intentions, these men aren't interested in long-term relationships with all these women. The more options a man has, the less inclined he is to want one single relationship.
To put some numbers on it:
Men swipe right on 60% of women, women swipe right on 4.5% of men.
The bottom 80% of men are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men.
A guy with average attractiveness can only expect to be liked by slightly less than 1% of females. This means one “like” for every 115 women that see his profile.
And if the majority of women are vying for these men and ignoring the rest of them, that creates both a large amount of lonely women and men. Indeed: 28% of men under 30 have reported no sex in the last year, which has doubled in the last decade. This celibacy level is reminiscent of feudal medieval times. In the old days these men would have become monks or cannon fodder for the war. But these days, they just watch porn and play video games (don’t give up, guys!).
Jon Birger in his book Date-onomics wrote about the role sex ratios play in determining dating dynamics. In places where there's more women than there are men, there's much more hookup culture, women expect less from men, and women report feeling worse about their chances of getting a boyfriend. In places where the sex ratio is reversed, the opposite is the case: men defer to women, so to speak, which means more dates before first sex, less casual sex, etc.
Online dating creates the sex ratio where there’s way more dateable women than men, since men have lower standards and women tend to not settle as much as men do.
To expand upon the matching problem: Women only date across and up status hierarchies, whereas men date across and down. Women are 60% of all college students, and the median woman is starting to out-earn the median man. To put a starker point on it, at least one-sixth of prime working age men 25-54 are either unemployed or out of the workforce. More men aged 18-34 are living with parents than with their romantic partner.
As a result, we have lots of women who want a partner but not enough successful men to be worthy of their partnership. That’s why we get 80% of women wanting 20% of men.
As I see it, there are four possible responses to the matching problem.
Woman keep out-earning men, but date down economically
The median man starts to out earn the median women.
Polyamory (the best men date multiple women)
[Most likely] Men and women continue to not marry, and use technology (e.g. artificial wombs, AI girlfriends) to meet their respective needs.
These options seem suboptimal (in some cases dystopian), but I don’t see any other solutions.
A society with too many isolated men and no war to send them to is a scary situation. A term for this is the bare branches theory: the idea that when you get enough branches on a family tree that have no hope of growing new branches, you end up having to drum up a war with an enemy outside of your country, otherwise, they will decay your country from the inside.
Men aren’t the only ones screwed by the lack of…screwing. Morgan Stanley released a forecast saying that by the year 2030, they predict that ~45% of working age women will be single and childless.
Monogamy used to be a social technology that held this drifting-towards-polygamy tendency in check. So the cultures that began to practice monogamy began to flourish more than cultures that didn't, because with monogamy you solve the surplus male problem. But that implies that there’s enough good men for women to date.
Of course, zooming out, even the concept of romantic love is a new concept. One of the things that jumps out of reading about any historical aristocratic order is how little choice the kids had who they married. Nietzsche makes this point that romantic love as a criterion had thoroughly undermined marriage. He already saw it as an anachronistic practice in 1888.
Tocqueville talked about how in America, they don't arrange marriages — they raise the daughters to choose husbands wisely (assuming there are good husbands to choose from). And that's the way that Americans can get away with marriage, which has such very strict obligations, because they are making marriages with mature decisions. And even then, women may not have been choosing for love. They were prioritizing good fathers to their children, or so the theory goes. More broadly, the theory goes, the love in marriage does not consist of the same burning desire to jump into bed with each other that they once felt at 20. It consists of a shared life and a growing companionship and a depth of human connection that's very difficult to describe to an outsider, let alone describe in an app. No one wants to go back to the era where people didn’t choose their partners and they relied on their partners for survival, but maybe we’ve gone so far to the other extreme of optimizing across superficial dimensions and for short-term, non-committed experiences that perhaps we’ve collectively lost the plot.