Episode 513: Dear Economist, I Need A Date : Planet Money On today's show, economist and author, Tim Harford, applies economic theory to your questions about love, sex and dating.
NPR logo

Episode 513: Dear Economist, I Need A Date

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/268422490/268476663" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Episode 513: Dear Economist, I Need A Date

Episode 513: Dear Economist, I Need A Date

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/268422490/268476663" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When Lisa signed up for Match.com, she was at this point in her dating life where she felt she's ready to try something new - not online dating. She'd met people online before. But just generally, she'd been feeling like she needed a whole new approach.

LISA CHOW, BYLINE: I had to be kind of more aggressive about it. I had to be more diligent and not just - and I had to be focused.

JOFFE-WALT: Lisa was 31 years old. She'd just moved back to New York City. And she'd basically spent her 20s in a series of long-term relationships.

CHOW: I kind of decided at 31 that I didn't have that luxury anymore. I couldn't do that anymore. And so I was much more efficient (laughter).

JOFFE-WALT: Lisa, you may recognize, is our very own Lisa Chow, a reporter here at PLANET MONEY. But this was back in 2008, long before she joined us here. And none of us actually knew this story until just yesterday.

CHOW: And so I started going on dates. And it did get a little bit overwhelming. And so I did do something - I did make an Excel file and I started just writing down their names.

JOFFE-WALT: You have a spreadsheet right there in front of you.

CHOW: Yes, I have (laughter) - I have a spreadsheet in front of me. And I kind of created these different columns. Actually, one, two, three, four, five, six columns.

JOFFE-WALT: Lisa needed the spreadsheet because in a year and a half, Lisa Chow went on 50 dates - 50 first dates.

CHOW: Twenty-two of the 50 I went on second dates with. Yeah, it was a lot of dating.

JOFFE-WALT: Was it fun?

CHOW: Oh, it was so much fun.


CHOW: Yeah, I really loved it. I mean, I - you know, it's so funny. I was actually really pleasantly surprised. I mean, the guys were really great. There were some really nice guys.

JOFFE-WALT: That is literally the first time I have ever heard that from a woman who dates online.


JOFFE-WALT: Wow, really?

CHOW: Yeah, yeah, like, pleasantly surprised how many really great guys there are.

JOFFE-WALT: I asked Lisa to come open today's show because my colleague Lisa is a secret dating genius. I had no idea. She went on 50 first dates and she never once felt sad or stressed or demoralized. She just was efficient and rational. She thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. Here's what she did. She went on 50 dates. And each time, she went home after the date and she would record month, year, time, location, name and one memorable detail.

CHOW: OK, so I have pothead, touchy, boring - oh, (laughter) this guy had four gym memberships.

JOFFE-WALT: What was the one that I just saw that I loved? Here, for this person, you have bobs his head a bit too much, socially inept Russian, this guy - way West Coast but super cute dude.


JOFFE-WALT: At the time, Lisa had lots of friends who were also dating online. And they would all complain all the time about, you know, I wrote five guys and only one of them wrote me back.

CHOW: When I was doing online dating, I never wrote people emails. I mean, some people might call that a cop-out. But I just said, I'm going to lower my transaction costs and purely just wink. And if they're really interested, they'll write back. I remember, actually, I'd be sitting, like, watching some HBO show (laughter) and just, like, sitting back with my computer and going, click, click, click, you know, wink, wink, wink, you know, and not even thinking twice about it.

JOFFE-WALT: The date needed to happen very soon after first contact. Lisa didn't want to build up some idea of the guy before meeting him and then have an opportunity to be disappointed. Similarly, no dates on Friday or Saturday nights. She told me it's depressing to come home after a bad date on a weekend, so she just never let that happen. And if Lisa went on a third date with someone, she would always take them to a social gathering that included some casual friends of hers.

That way, she could observe them in a social setting. In other words, Lisa took something that's normally mysterious and squishy, human attraction, and she tried to strip it of all of the messy emotions. I really think that's what made her so successful. She made this thing that most people find so stressful and tedious that just sucks your time and self-confidence and hope and she made that fun. And she did it using data and statistics.

And true economics reporter, Lisa Chow, she applied the principles of economics to her love life and it worked.

CHOW: There was one guy - hold on - that was, like, almost, like, 45 - number 45, right? We were kind of dating. We were seeing each other for about six weeks. And I just at one point just decided, OK, this is not going to work out. So I cut the cord. And then I - and I thought, like, did I make a mistake? Like, you know, we did have so many kind of things in common. And then the next week, I went on a date with Kevin (ph). And instantly, I knew I didn't make a mistake, you know?

And I was thinking, all of those times that I had - if I had stayed with that guy, you know, I wouldn't have had that opportunity to meet, like, the Kevin, right? And so it just became very - it kind of crystallized right there. Like, oh, OK, that's what an opportunity cost feels like, right? It's like, when you stay with that guy you're kind of feeling iffy about and you're missing out on, you know, Kevin.

JOFFE-WALT: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.


And I'm Robert Smith. And that was Lisa Chow, PLANET MONEY reporter, now married to Kevin.

JOFFE-WALT: And Lisa and Kevin have a beautiful toddler named Isaac (ph).

SMITH: And Lisa's story reminded us of something that we wonder about during our dark, dark moments of producing this show, which is how useful is economics in our everyday life? I mean, how far can you really take it? Can you take it all the way to the most emotional, intimate part of our lives? Today, we're going to try.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Baby, kiss me before they turn the lights out, before they turn the lights out. Baby, love me lights out.

JOFFE-WALT: We had an opportunity to test this the other day because one of our favorite economists was in New York promoting a new book, Tim Harford.

SMITH: And Tim Harford is a great guy. He used to work as an economist for Shell and the World Bank. And then he went into the sort of thing we do, explanatory journalism. He wrote a book called "The Undercover Economist" and a column in the Financial Times. And I imagine it's somewhat hard to come up with a topic every week in the Financial Times. And so he had this great idea, this jokey idea. I will do a "Dear Economist" advice column, love and sex advice for the heartbroken.

TIM HARFORD: In many ways, love seems to be totally divorced from economics. But then you realize, well, the stakes are high. This is something that matters to us. We're dealing with scarcity. I mean, if you're dating one person, at the very least, you don't have as much time to date another person. And you may well find that you can only date one person at a time.

SMITH: And something strange happened when he started to do this column. I mean, at first it was this character he was playing. But then real people started writing with real problems. And Tim started to think, you know, economics really does have something to offer these people.

HARFORD: It's simultaneously completely useless and irrelevant and somehow in some brilliant, hidden, genius way, keeps producing insights that are not necessarily obvious from the normal way that we think about things.

JOFFE-WALT: We knew Tim was coming in and we asked all of you to send us your questions about love and sex and whatever else you wanted to ask Tim about. And we got some of you on the phone with Tim so you could ask him directly for his economic advice.

Arthur (ph), are you there?


JOFFE-WALT: Great, hi.


JOFFE-WALT: So we have Tim Harford here. Do you want to introduce yourself to him?

ARTHUR: OK, my name is Arthur. I live in Pittsburgh, Pa. I'm a senior in high school.

HARFORD: I'm pleased to meet you, Arthur. How are you? I'm Tim.

ARTHUR: Pleased to meet you.

JOFFE-WALT: So what's your question for the economist?

ARTHUR: All right, so my question is I'm a senior in high school and I've never been on a date. Should I be worried about this?

JOFFE-WALT: Arthur, can I just ask, what is it about not having been on a date that makes you worried? What makes you think you should be worried?

ARTHUR: I don't know, it just seems that everyone else, you know, like, well, not everyone else but lots of people around me, you know, and, you know, I have a prom coming up and I'm clueless about that. So it's kind of - it's a little bit stressful.

HARFORD: Well, Arthur, I think you are the victim of what behavioral economists call hyperbolic discounting, or more simply, you're taking a very short-term perspective. So you've really missed the first 10 percent of your possible dating experience. And let's be honest, it's not the best 10 percent, is it? I mean, dating when you're a teenager, it's not that great. There are all kinds of inconveniences. You don't have your own place. And you don't really know what you're doing.

In any case, economists counsel that you shouldn't worry about sunk costs. You can't go back in time and have a date when you're 15 anyway. So don't worry about that. I would just be inclined to crack on with things. Are you planning to go to college?


HARFORD: Yeah, well, experience suggests it's going to get a lot more exciting from then on in. Don't worry.


JOFFE-WALT: Are you going to ask somebody to prom?

ARTHUR: I haven't really thought about that, you know? I kind of wish prom wasn't a thing.

HARFORD: I think a lot of people have that feeling. I could give you a piece of advice specifically about the prom if you're interested. So the great behavioral economist stroke psychologist Daniel Kahneman, he won the Nobel Prize in economics, even though he's not an economist. That's how good he is. He talks about something called loss aversion. And this is a discovery that was one of the first discoveries made in behavioral economics.

And loss aversion is a really disproportionate anxiety about stuff that doesn't matter very much. So for instance, if you lose $5, you feel really bad about the $5 you've lost. You're cursing yourself. You're going through it again and again. If on the other hand you find $5, you go, hey, great, five bucks. And you've forgotten about it really quickly. So now let's think about prom night. What are the gains of a prom date that goes well versus the losses from a prom date that doesn't go well or you ask someone to the prom and they say, no?

Well, actually, you weren't going to have a prom date anyway if you didn't ask. So the cost of asking somebody and being refused is actually really quite small. It doesn't feel good, but it's no big deal. Whereas you never had the date before, so, hey, if this date goes well, this could be the start of something really big for you. So remember loss aversion when you are weighing up these two choices. I can't tell you what to do. But I can tell you you're probably taking the downside risk too seriously and not thinking enough about the potential upside.

SMITH: Just don't actually use the words loss aversion...

ARTHUR: (Laughter) When you're asking, yeah.

SMITH: ...When you're asking the woman, yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: How do you feel about that advice, Arthur?

ARTHUR: I feel great.

JOFFE-WALT: That makes you feel better?

ARTHUR: It makes me feel really good.

HARFORD: Economics spreads happiness.


HARFORD: It's the truth.

JOFFE-WALT: Arthur, thank you so much.

ARTHUR: Thank you very much.

SMITH: All right, one problem solved. If you're just tuning in, "Dear Economist" is taking advice for the lovelorn. Next up...

JOFFE-WALT: Terry (ph), are you there?

TERRY: I am.

JOFFE-WALT: OK, great.

HARFORD: Hi, Terry, this is Tim. I'm the economist.

TERRY: Hi, Tim the economist, hello.

JOFFE-WALT: OK, so, Terry, go ahead and introduce yourself to Tim and tell him your question.

TERRY: Great. My name's Terry. What I wrote in about - my husband has a little bit of a problem being supportive of me when I have interests that don't include him than I am supportive of him having interests that don't include me. And biggest example of this is he is incredibly interested in card games and board games. And I'm always encouraging him to go out and find groups. But he thinks that any time left over in the week should definitely be us time.

And I can either arrange my schedule so the stuff that I want to do independent of him falls into days that he's already playing his games or he has other commitments away from me or I don't get to do them (laughter).

HARFORD: And have you challenged him about this?

TERRY: Yeah, several times.

HARFORD: And he says he doesn't care or he says he'll do better?

TERRY: (Laughter) No, he says I'm absolutely right, it should completely be different. And then pretty much the same thing happens.

HARFORD: OK, so your problems are over. Number one...

TERRY: Oh, yay.

HARFORD: So number one, we know that people respond to incentives. And we just need to get the right incentive. So here's what you're going to do. You are going to take a couple of jars or little vases or whatever and put them on the shelf. And you're going to start filling them with coins or counters or marbles, maybe board game pieces since he's such a board game fan. And every time you feel that you've done him a favor, you've let him go out and play games with his friends or whatever, you've gone to see a movie that he wanted to see that you didn't really want to see, you get to put one of these counters in your vase. And every time the opposite is true, he gets to put a counter in his vase. And when the vase or the jar is full, you have done him a vase-load of favors.

You are a domestic goddess, and he has to treat you to a day at the spa, he has to take you out to dinner, he has to do something nice. And simultaneously, if once his vase is full, you have to do something nice for him. And so this is a game that he is going to understand and it is a game that you are going to win.

TERRY: Yay, I think that that sounds like a fantastic idea.

HARFORD: I'm very glad. I hope your husband also agrees. One tip, don't take apart his favorite board games to make this counting system. He's not going to get that.

TERRY: I absolutely would never do that.

HARFORD: Let me know how it works out. Thank you so much.

TERRY: Thank you.

JOFFE-WALT: Thanks, Terry, bye.

TERRY: Bye-bye.

SMITH: Russell (ph), can you hear us?

RUSSELL: Yes, I can.

SMITH: This is Robert Smith, the co-host. We're here with Tim Harford.

HARFORD: Hello, Russell. This is Tim.

RUSSELL: Hi there, Tim.

JOFFE-WALT: And you want to just introduce yourself to our economist and tell him your question.

RUSSELL: Well, (unintelligible), I guess my question is kind of long. My name is Russell, and I'm polyamorous. I'm married but I also have two close other loving partners who I share my life with. And in turn, she also has other partners of her own. And in fact, we live with one of her boyfriends. A core tendon of polyamory is the concept of abundance. And love is abundant, and you can share it with whomever you want, whereas monogamy concentrates on scarcity.

So I'm just curious to hear the economist's thoughts on the idea of scarcity and abundance in love and then what economic benefits or detractors could arise from society thinking abundantly about love in this way.

HARFORD: So, Russell, economics is often described as the study of scarce resources. So in a way, you would think that an economist was the wrong person to analyze this situation of abundance that you find yourself in. I'm sure a lot of listeners are contemplating that abundance right now. What I would say is that love may be boundless and abundant but time isn't. Time is finite. So the challenge that I'm sure you're well aware of having to manage is splitting your time between your multiple partners.

Now, there is actually an economic theory that is related to this. It was developed by Gary Becker, Nobel Prize-winner in economics. And he developed an idea of how many children you might want to have. And what Becker said is there's a tradeoff here because each additional child that you have is going to divide your time and your attention. You're going to have to cram them into a smaller house. They're going to have to share rooms or you might have to move into the suburbs, somewhere cheaper, further away from where the job is.

You can't afford to spend so much time with them. And so in Becker's theory, there is this tradeoff between the quantity of children and the quality of children. And I would imagine you face the same tradeoff. You have to decide what the optimal number of committed partners is. You say that love is abundant and can be shared in a transparent way. But actually, your behavior is not totally consistent with that because you only have, I think - what? - three committed partners?

Your wife has a few committed partners. Why not 5 billion? I mean, there are 7 billion people on the planet. Why not love all of them?

SMITH: What do you think, Russell? Have you hit your limit?

RUSSELL: Actually, the answer is yes because what I discovered is trying to be able to have, let's say, more than three partners was absolutely impossible, at least for my own relationships. Tim is right in that I constantly have to be able to balance my time and be able to schedule and coordinate my time with my partners so that I can be able to have a meaningful relationship. Otherwise, it just kind of degrades over time and it's not something that's worthwhile or meaningful.

HARFORD: Russell, this is something I love about economics. So I know very little about polyamory. Gary Becker, I'm fairly sure, knows nothing whatsoever about polyamory. This is a theory that Gary Becker developed almost half a century ago. It's purely abstract. It's not actually about the subject in question and yet it delivers a result that you find persuasive.

RUSSELL: That's fantastic. Thank you.

JOFFE-WALT: OK, well, thanks so much for calling us.

SMITH: Thanks, Russell.

RUSSELL: Bye-bye.

JOFFE-WALT: Tim Harford answered a bunch of questions for us from PLANET MONEY listeners. He's probably answered dozens of questions on his column in the Financial Times. And so we asked him what's the one economic principle that keeps coming up as sort of an answer to these questions? What's the most useful thing you could say to people who have love questions and want an economist's answer?

HARFORD: The sunk cost fallacy is really important. The sunk cost fallacy is that you keep going with something because you've started, basically. You've already invested resources in it. You've already invested time, money, whatever and so you keep going. And the way to avoid the sunk cost fallacy is just to stop and say, well, if I hadn't spent any of that money, hadn't invested all that time, that energy, would I start now or not? And if you wouldn't start now, then you should probably stop.

And that little decision rule is something that's helped me a lot in relationships and helped me in talking to friends about their relationships. It was actually a source of genuinely good advice.

SMITH: So you've broken up with someone because of the sunk cost fallacy?

HARFORD: I - yeah, yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: Or have you just broken up other people?

HARFORD: I've certainly broken up other people. The rules are always different for yourself, aren't they?


BEYONCE: (Singing) Your love is bright as ever, even in the shadows. Baby, kiss me.

SMITH: Thank you so much for coming in, Tim.


HARFORD: My pleasure. Thank you.

SMITH: And thanks so much to everyone who wrote in with your questions. You really took a risk. We really appreciate reading it and your faith in us that we could actually solve something for once.

JOFFE-WALT: Which maybe we did and maybe we didn't. But either way, it was really fun to read them.

SMITH: Yeah, and we had better luck with this than we did with the European economy.

JOFFE-WALT: All right, you can find us at npr.org/money.

SMITH: Or on Spotify or Twitter or Facebook. I'm Robert Smith.

JOFFE-WALT: And I'm Chana Joffe-Walt. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.