SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
Ladies and gentlemen, Aziz Ansari.
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A few months ago, I was asked to host an event in Washington, D.C., with the comedian Aziz Ansari. You might know him as Tom Haverford from "Parks And Recreation," or you might be binge-watching his new original series on Netflix, "Master Of None." What you might not know about Aziz is that he's also interested in human behavior.
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AZIZ ANSARI: One out of three people that get married now, they meet their spouse through online dating. So you could look at it like, oh, well, there's an insane amount of love that would not even be there had it not been for these things. And I feel like you can't deny that that's a positive thing.
VEDANTAM: He recently co-wrote a book with the sociologist Eric Klinenberg called "Modern Romance" about the changing state of love in the digital age. We taped the live conversation at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, and we're going to play you an excerpt. If you know anything about Aziz, we don't need to tell you this episode is going to get a little racy. If you're in the car with kids, you might want to save this episode for later. Enjoy.
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VEDANTAM: I want to jump to one particular section that you start right at the top of the book, looking at ways in which people text one another...
VEDANTAM: ...And the fact that people turn out to be surprisingly bad at texting. Actually, I should correct that. What you're saying is that men turn out to be surprisingly bad at texting women.
ANSARI: Well, I will say this, OK? When we, like, ask women, like, well, what are the things you like when guys text you, like, what are the factors that make a text that you like, and kind of the consensus we got was asking them to do a specific thing at a specific time, saying something that may be, like, recalled, like an interaction that they had in the past to kind of just show that you are engaged and this was something that you're in to. And the last thing was, like, just, you know, some sort of humor is also helpful. And, you know, in the book, we talk about this stuff, and it's not from the perspective of this is what you should do, more like how the [expletive] do people not know, like, this is all you have to do. Like, the bar is startlingly low. Like, it's really, like, very scary how low the bar is.
VEDANTAM: I'm wondering whether we can have you just read a short excerpt from the book that talks about how badly men are doing this. And you have a little excerpt here...
VEDANTAM: ...With a guy who tries to text a woman. It's on page 42 for anyone if you want to...
ANSARI: OK, great.
VEDANTAM: ...Read along, so...
(Reading) So people say it doesn't matter what you text someone. They like you, they like you. After interviewing hundreds of singles, I can scientifically confirm that this is total [expletive]. For those who doubt me, here is an example from a show I did at the Chicago Theater in the spring of 2014. During that tour, after material about texting, I would ask if anyone in the audience had recently met someone or had been texting back and forth. If they had, they would come onto the stage now and pick a few people and read, analyze and ask them about what was happening in their messages. At this particular show, I was speaking with Rachel who had met a guy at a good friend's wedding. As it happened, the guy was also a friend of her sister's, so he had a pretty good shot at a first date with her. She was single. She was interested. All he had to do was send her a simple message introducing himself and asking her to do something. Here's what happened.
ANSARI: (Reading) He sends his first message. Hi, Rachel. Since I never got a chance to ask you to dance at Marissa and Chris's wedding - I'm Chris's old roommate from Purdue - he and your sister gave me your number. I wanted to say hi and sort of texty introduce myself, haha (ph). Hope you had a great weekend, dot dot dot. Hope to chat with you soon.
ANSARI: (Reading) Rachel wrote back 10 minutes later. Hey, great to meet you, currently enjoying my birthday weekend with lots of good Mexican food. It happens when your birthday is in Cinco de Mayo. Hope you had a great weekend, too. He wrote back shortly. I totally realize upon reading my last message I didn't include my name (laughter).
ANSARI: I'm Will, smiley face. Feliz cumpleanos as well.
ANSARI: And totally digging on the Cinco de Mayo theme. Rachel never met Will.
ANSARI: (Reading) After a few messages of this nature, Rachel stopped responding. None of us know Will. He may be a kind, handsome man with a heart of gold. But all we have to go on is those messages, and those messages have shaped in our minds a very dorky, terrifyingly Caucasian weirdo.
VEDANTAM: So one of the things that you point out in the book is that there's this arms race in waiting when someone texts you, that if you...
VEDANTAM: ...Respond to a text right away, you instantly lose all leverage because you indicate interest. You indicate desperation. So you wait when someone texts you. And now that person is playing the same game with you, so they wait and respond to texting you, and now you have this extended waiting game.
ANSARI: It's so weird, and it's weird because everyone knows what people are doing, and they still [expletive] do it.
ANSARI: Like, oh, you're going to wait 20 minutes? Oh, did you have a meeting? No, you [expletive] didn't. You were waiting on purpose. Well, guess what, I'm going to wait 40 minutes. I'm going to double that [expletive] because I have [expletive] going on, too, not really, but I'm going to pretend like I do. It's so weird. You know, that was the thing that was interesting to me. Like, I wondered, like, why did that waiting drive me crazy when I was single and, like, had to deal with that. Like, I would go crazy. And, you know, in the book, we looked at a lot of studies. We talked to a lot of very smart people, and they explain it to me, and it made sense. Like, basically, the idea is like - let's say you're a guy. You meet three women, and you text all three of them, and two of them write you back. The two that write you back, they kind of put your mind at ease, right? Well, the third one has not written you back, so they're not putting your mind at ease. And they've created uncertainty, and uncertainty is very powerful, and it sticks in your mind. And you're like, well, what the [expletive] is going on? What did I do? Did I do something wrong? Does this person not like me? What's happening? What's happening? And so that person has more presence of your mind, and just that presence on your mind can sometimes develop into attraction. So when they finally do put your mind at ease, it's more meaningful to you. But there's also kind of, like, at a certain point, if you wait too long, then the person's like, well, screw, this person. Like, they waited too long. Like, screw them. I'm going to hang out with one of these other people that wrote me back quickly or whatever. So it's just never quite a precise thing. There's not, like, something you can say where it's like, OK, if you wait, like, this amount of minutes, you're going to be perfect. Like, all those things vary from person to person. There's a lot of factors. But the thing we learned is, like, that amount of time decreases as you get to younger people. Like, if you talk - I'm 32. If you talk to someone my age, they're like, oh, if they wait, like, you know, a day or, like, six hours, it's a little unnerving. If you talk to someone who is, like, in college now, they're like, I haven't heard anything in five minutes. What's happened?
ANSARI: OK, it's that window is getting smaller and smaller.
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VEDANTAM: When we come back, we'll talk about how the ever-growing pool of dating options can be both a blessing and a curse. This is related to an idea in psychology known as the paradox of choice. Having too many choices can be tough when you're dating or when you're buying jam.
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ANSARI: Like, there's just too much goddamn jam out there. Like...
ANSARI: ...You know, you go on a date, and you go to the bathroom, like, a few pieces of jam have texted you, and you're like, what the [expletive] is this. You go online, there's so much jam out there. There's iPhone apps that literally tell you that there's jam nearby that wants to get eaten at that very moment. I mean...
ANSARI: ...What can you do?
VEDANTAM: Stay with us.
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VEDANTAM: Welcome back to HIDDEN BRAIN. Aziz Ansari talks in his book about the vast number of dating choices people have today. This led to an idea that's been explored in the social sciences. It's known as the paradox of choice.
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ANSARI: One of the big changes for people that are, like, dating now is you have more options than any generation of people ever. You know, when we talked to people that were living in retirement homes and stuff, it was really interesting. They talked about how, like - especially with the women it was really interesting. You know, they were saying, like, well, you know, I was 20 years old. I was living with my parents. I didn't have the opportunity to pursue education or my own career. I didn't really get to become an adult until I got married. And there was some guy that lived in the neighborhood. He was pretty nice. And I wanted to get out of the house, and I was like, all right, I'll get married, you know.
ANSARI: And they really said that. I was like, are - it sounds like it because they were like - some of the women, they were really happy. They were like, oh, we grew to have this deep bond, but other women were like, no, not as much of a bond, and...
ANSARI: ...And getting married was kind of the first step in adulthood for those generations. But for us, this, you know, people now, marriage isn't always a first step. You know, you go to college, you pursue a career, you live in a bunch of different places, and you meet so many people throughout all these different stages of your life. You have this whole stage of life that is referred to as emerging adulthood. And yeah, you meet so many people that way. And then you add in the online dating aspect of things, and you have more options than anyone could have possibly imagined in those generations of retirement homes.
VEDANTAM: So I mean, I can see why a dating pool of three people is too small to actually find your life partner, but a dating pool of 30,000 or 300,000 is just unmanageable because what happens is every time you meet someone who's potentially interesting, a little voice in the back of your head says, if you wait for another two days, you could find someone better than this.
ANSARI: Well, yeah, you - well, the problem is it's what we refer to or what does this gentleman Barry Schwartz that we interviewed in the book - he does a lot of research on choice, and he wrote this book called the "Paradox Of Choice," and the kind of main thesis of that book is the idea that, like, you know, when you have more options, your instinct is, oh, well, that's better. I have more options, I have more things to choose from. I'll be happier. But in reality, when they do study after study, they find the more options you have, the harder it is to make a decision. And when you do make a decision, you end up being less satisfied because you're thinking about whether you made the wrong decision or whether one of these other things would've been a better match for you. And the really famous study is this study they did in a grocery store where they had two different displays with jams. And one display had, like, you know, five jams, and then the other display had, like, 36 jams. And whenever it was the five jams, people were way more likely to buy the jams. And when they had the 36 jams, they were just overwhelmed, and they didn't know what to do, and they ended up not buying jam sometimes, so...
ANSARI: And they also said this, which is really interesting. They said, like, oh, people that bought the jams from the 36, like, the bigger display or whatever else - I'm getting these numbers wrong. I'm paraphrasing it, but the core of the thing is right. The one they bought from the one with the bigger display with more options, the people reported being less satisfied with the jam, which I found really hilarious, the idea that someone ate jam and like, this jam's not satisfying. What's wrong with this jam (laughter)? This doesn't taste like strawberries (laughter). But the thing we say in the book is, like, to me, like, that totally applies to modern romance because, I mean, there's just too much goddamn jam out there. Like...
ANSARI: ...You know, you go on a date, and you go to the bathroom, like a few pieces of jam have texted you, and you're like, what the [expletive] is this. You go online, there's so much jam out there. There's iPhone apps that literally tell you that there's jam nearby that wants to get eaten at that very moment. I mean...
ANSARI: ...What can you do?
VEDANTAM: You know, you talk in the book about this guy you interviewed who I think who was on match.com, and you actually got to observe him making choices where he was sort of reviewing pictures of women and then deciding whether he liked them or not.
VEDANTAM: And I don't know if you remember the specific anecdote, but I'm wondering if you can just tell us about it.
ANSARI: Yeah, I remember this guy. I - so...
ANSARI: ...He just - he didn't seem like - like, he wasn't, like, a hunk or anything. Like, he wasn't a stud. He was just kind of, like - and this is mean, but he was just kind of like a mediocre white guy (laughter). And he logged onto his account, and it said, like, oh - it was a match.com account in this case - and he looks on it, and he was just like - and it said, like, you have these many matches. And I looked at the photo, and I was like, wow, that woman's very attractive. And then he looked at her profile, and he is, like, debating whether he should send her message, and he's like, no, and I was like, what?
ANSARI: Why are you not sending her a message? And he's like, she likes the Red Sox.
ANSARI: And I was like, what? And then, like, I saw him go to another woman and ignore her. And then he ignored, like, one other woman and then he sent this other woman, like, a quick message. And it blew my mind because if any of those other three women that he, like, put an X on, if they had seen him in a bar, like, you know, 20 years ago and, like, smiled at him, he would have [expletive].
ANSARI: He would have went crazy. He would have been crazy. These were beautiful women. They were very interesting and seem like intelligent, thoughtful people just - and, you know, based on what little I saw from the profile - but they seem like interesting people where it would be a catch for this guy. But now, he was just like, eh, whatever. Like, there's so many people out here - who cares?
VEDANTAM: So - But here's the thing that I find really sad about what you're describing, which is that people are looking at these pictures and they're making judgments about this other person based on this very, very small amount of information, and often based on things that they think are important criteria to them. So if you ask people, they will tell you, I want someone who's this tall or this short or this color hair or this body profile and so on.
VEDANTAM: But if you actually look at the data of who people end up with, people often don't end up with the people that they say they're actually looking for. So if they eliminate people based on the criteria they think they have, they might be eliminating their soul mates.
ANSARI: Exactly, yeah. I mean, yeah - there's plenty of studies that show that we're horrible at knowing what we really like, you know? Whenever they look at these online sites and they see what people say they prefer and what they actually go after, it's always - there's always a big contrast. You're like, what? You said you like this but that's actually who you're interested in. I think that goes back to this idea of, like, you know, all these online dating sites - you have all these filters and all this stuff. But none of it really matters. Like, it's really just about, like, this connection that you have with someone in person and seeing if there's some sort of spark or connection. Like, when you have this connection with someone in real life, you don't stop and go wait, wait, wait - hold on, what are your favorite movies? Like, you're just - you don't give a [expletive]. You're engaged with the person, and you like it, and it's fun. And I think sometimes with these online sites, the people that seem to be a little frustrated were people that were trying to find this perfect person and spending this extended period of time, like, messaging back and forth and trying to find this elusive rapport. And really, you just find that in person. And I think our kind of big take-away from online dating was what this woman Helen Fisher told us is - and she's, like, this amazingly smart social anthropologist and also works with match.com. And she's like, you know, these sites shouldn't be called online dating sites. They should be called online introduction services because you want to meet this person in person. Like - and what I realized is, like, you know, you don't meet the perfect person online. You can meet a person online. But to find out they're perfect, you have to see how you are in a person.
VEDANTAM: So in other words, you really - you have to sort of date three before you actually figure out whether this person is for you or not. But if you're in constantly swipe right-swipe left mode, you are not going to get to that point.
ANSARI: Or even worse than the swipe right-swipe left mode is this mode of like, oh, let me just keep sending messages and see if this is my dream person. You know, Tinder, I actually I think - and those kind of swipe apps - I totally see why those came about. Like, there's some people that would say, oh, well that seems really shallow, just to see a picture and just, like, swipe and decide if you're going to meet someone. But, I mean, when you go into a bar or a party, you're looking at people and going no, no, yes - you're doing that.
VEDANTAM: So I'm trying to internalize your lesson, which is that it's less important to meet new people and more important to spend time with the people you meet to figure out if they're actually right for you.
ANSARI: So the thing we mention in the book is what we call the Flo Rida theory of acquired likability through repetition...
ANSARI: ...Which basically is saying, like, yes, they're [expletive] people. Yes, of course. But I'd like to think there's a lot of great people out there. And a lot of people that we're quick to dismiss. If you apply this theory - the theory is basically like, we're all like a Flo Rida song, you know? The first time you hear it, you're like, all right, Flo Rida, I've heard this [expletive] before; get it out of here, leave me alone. And then you keep hearing it. And it gets stuck in your head. And you're like, Flo Rida, you've done it again - let's dance.
VEDANTAM: I was reading a section of the book this afternoon that brought back some memories from some years ago involving a certain Congressman from New York...
VEDANTAM: ...And some Facebook messages he had exchanged with a woman named Lisa from Las Vegas. I'm wondering if you might be able to read this exchange for us.
VEDANTAM: And I want to ask you whether you think these online sites and this technology has increased the risk of indiscretions and infidelity.
ANSARI: Sure. All right.
(Reading) I remember reading the Anthony Weiner Facebook messages. Seeing the way he was just messaging random women all over the country and watching the messages quickly escalate from innocuous to very sexual was unbelievable. This is a transcript of a chat session he had with one of these women - a lady named Lisa from Las Vegas. Weiner and Lisa - sorry to bring this back guys - but it is fascinating.
Lisa - I'm trying to find the wonderful Anthony Weiner who I fell in love with for yelling at those damn Republicans the other day. And you as were as funny as hell on "The Daily Show." Your friend requests are full. You must friend me. You are awesome.
Anthony - thank you, Lisa - glad you have my back. You keeping an eye on that wackadoodle (ph) Sharron Angle for us?
Lisa - how insane is she? Who needs Social Security, Medicare or education? If this wacko wins my state, I swear I'll have to move. She may be dumber than plain, and that is tough to find.
ANSARI: (Reading) Like this cute new pic of you - when are you coming to Vegas to help me beat up the right-wing crazies?
Anthony - This is my pull-my-finger shot - glad you like. I'm ready for a Vegas trip. Truth telling during the day - got a night plan for us?
Lisa - Haha (ph) that was a very loaded question. I've got all kinds of night plans for us. When are you coming?
Anthony - Don't know - make me an offer I can't refuse.
Lisa - To get us in the mood, first we watch back-to-back episodes of "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report."
ANSARI: (Reading) Then to really spice things up, we go deface all of my neighbors' Sharron Angle yard signs. Then when we're really hot, we go to the bookstore and cover all the Glenn Beck books with copies of "The Audacity Of Hope."
ANSARI: (Reading) I do this about once a week. You can tell I'm a very exciting girl. Or if this is not your thing, we can just get drunk and have mad, passionate sex.
For me, the most offensive part was that he used the word wackadoodle.
ANSARI: (Reading) Also, did you catch that sly, almost subliminal, blink-and-you-might-miss-it allusion to sex? It was when she said they could have mad, passionate sex.
VEDANTAM: So what do you think, Aziz? Have these online technologies made us more prone to indiscretion and infidelity, or is this just a manifestation of how we've always been?
ANSARI: I think it definitely - there's definitely - if you're trying to get involved in indiscretions you - if you have these online things and you have your phone - if you have your phone, you have this very private world where you can conduct all sorts of [expletive] that no one knows about. There's a story we tell in the book of this person who says they were - they had, like, a work colleague. And they were friendly with each other. She was married. And she sent, like, a text message about something once. And it was, like, work-related. And he wrote back. And then later he saw something that was kind of funny that reminded him of her and he sent a message. And they started joking back and forth. And this rapport started developing. And they eventually had this, like, very, like, intimate thing going on the phone where they were, like, having long conversations. And it became this very intimate thing. And it eventually led to some infidelity. And it was interesting because the guy was like, you know, if I didn't have text message, I wouldn't have sent that first message that started leading to that rapport, you know, I would never have called her at her home and been like, hey, did you see that thing? Like, you know - but with your phone you can kind of build these kind of things that really escalate very quickly. And also I think, like, you know, in the Anthony Weiner thing it's like, oh, he's able to test the waters with that medium a little bit, where he's like, don't know, make me an offer I can't refuse. She could be like, oh, well, we'll go to Chili's. And he'll be like, oh, that doesn't sound fun. But she immediately, like, got it and started getting sexual. And he knew, like, okay, this is a sexual thing - she's down. And then after that message that I read, like, the floodgates opened and then, you know, there was all the photos and all that stuff. I - you know, I think - I don't think you can kind of accurately say whether it's led to an increase on the amount of infidelity that's going on. I do think there's certain aspects of it that make it a little more - lend itself to it, yeah.
VEDANTAM: One of the things you talk about in the book is about how online dating is rapidly becoming the way many people meet. But you also find that this is especially true for same-sex couples - that same-sex couples' online dating has really become the dominant way people meet one another. Why do you think that's going on, and what do you think it means?
ANSARI: Well, that is about something - a phenomenon related to what are referred to as thin markets. You know, I spoke with this woman who, like, late in her life - like, she was married to a guy. And then she got divorced and just kind of decided, like, you know what, I'm a lesbian. Like, I've been a lesbian my whole life. And she lives in this small town in Texas. And she started online dating and going out on dates and stuff like that. And I thought about that. I was like, wow, like, if that was her, you know, 20, 30 years ago, that would have been a much different thing. You know, being in a place like Texas, in a small town where maybe people aren't as open to that kind of stuff - it would have been way harder, whereas now she can go online and she's able to meet people and it's really a huge...
VEDANTAM: And so this in some way is sort of the positive side of technology, isn't it? Because it allows people who have minority interests, if you will, or sort of special interests, not to be lonely forever - to actually find people who match their interests, match their needs. And this is what technology has enabled.
ANSARI: Yeah, it's really helped in those kind of thin markets or whatever. And I think that's a - it's a good point that, like, for all these things there - I feel like, you know, kind of one of the big questions the book is asking is, oh, is all this stuff good or bad? And I think for each thing, it's not one answer. It's both. It really just depends on how you use these tools. You know, something like online dating - there's one notion of like, oh, everyone's on their phones, everyone thinks that there's something better out there, and it's just added so much stress to my life, and I hate it. Than you could also look at the other side of, like, well, one out of three people that get married now, they meet their spouse through online dating. And a huge percentage of these people are meeting people that they would not have met had it not been for these sites. So you could look at it like, oh, well, there's an insane amount of new love in the world that's created because of this technology. And there's just this overwhelming amount of love that would not even be there had it not been for these things. And I feel like you can't deny that that's a positive thing.
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VEDANTAM: That's comedian Aziz Ansari. His book, written with the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, is "Modern Romance." Aziz also has a new series on Netflix. It's called "Master Of None." If you want us to keep you posted about upcoming stories and podcast episodes, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word subscribe in the subject line. The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Special thanks this week to Daniel Shukin and Jay Siz (ph). For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook or Twitter and also tune in to your local public radio station. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.
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