Dating and Mating | Hidden Brain It's almost Valentine's Day, but this week we're not talking about love. Instead, we explore the other forces that drive our romantic relationships.
NPR logo

Why You'll Never Buy the Perfect Ring (and Other Valentine's Day Stories)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/466057462/466091866" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why You'll Never Buy the Perfect Ring (and Other Valentine's Day Stories)

Why You'll Never Buy the Perfect Ring (and Other Valentine's Day Stories)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/466057462/466091866" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Flowers, candy, sappy love songs, yup, Valentine's Day is just around the corner. This week, we're going to talk about the social science of romance. We'll tell you how to save cash on an engagement ring.

ANNE BOWERS: Turns out that the circumstances that surround the ring matter a great deal in about how much people are wanting to pay for it.

VEDANTAM: And why it will be good for your marriage to buy that cheaper ring.

DANIEL PINK, BYLINE: The more money a couple spent on the wedding or the ring, the more likely they later were to split up.

VEDANTAM: We'll also explore the relative merits of a guitar case or a gym bag as props in an experiment on attraction.

MESHELLE FOREMAN SHIELDS: He's going to be like the Pied Piper. They're going to be following him wherever he goes.

VEDANTAM: Anne Bowers is a professor at the University of Toronto. She studies how consumers determine how much to pay for wedding-related purchases.

BOWERS: I was looking at how people sell wedding dresses, and what I noticed about how people sell wedding dresses is that it is a lot about the day, how happy their marriage was, how beautiful their wedding was. And they show a lot of photos that have nothing to do with the dress itself and a lot about the experience that they had. And I wanted to look at how that impacted sales, but it's hard to do that statistically, so I switched to looking at engagement rings.

VEDANTAM: She looked at online sales of engagement rings.

BOWERS: And if you've ever shopped for an engagement ring, you know that people buy engagement rings based on four things - cut, color, clarity and carats. But it turns out that the circumstances that surround the ring matter a great deal in about how much people are wanting to pay for it. So I looked at about 1.5 million eBay transactions, and then I also ran an experiment of about 600 people, and I found that people really want a ring they perceive as pure and not tainted. And by tainted, I mean from a failed relationship.

VEDANTAM: In the experiment, Bowers offered the volunteers identical rings but different scenarios.

BOWERS: The first condition was a store condition where they said, we have excess inventory, and so we're selling the ring. Then we also had a happy marriage condition where the person said, I'm really happily married, but I work with my hands, and so I never wear this ring, and that's why I'm selling it. And finally, we had a ring where they said, I'm selling this because I got divorced, and I'm never wearing it, and you can have the ring for that. And those were the only things that differed. The ring itself was a .7-carat diamond ring with an original purchase price of $3,500.

VEDANTAM: Anne Bowers asked people how much they would be willing to pay for the ring and how authentic they thought the ring was.

BOWERS: So on average, people priced the divorced ring at about $550, and they priced the happy marriage ring at about $780 and the store ring at about $820. But the interesting thing was it kind of reversed when you asked them about how likely they thought the ring was to be fake. And they found that the divorced ring, they thought that was much less likely to be fake than the ring from the store of the happy marriage.

VEDANTAM: The most interesting thing is that people were actually aware of this bias.

BOWERS: And it's funny. I ask people in the experiment, you know, why did you price the way that you priced? And people would say things like, I know I shouldn't believe this, I know it's just a ring, but it doesn't matter. I wouldn't be OK with this. It just feels wrong. And they can't really articulate why because they do know it's just a piece of metal, but it becomes really important in these settings.

VEDANTAM: And that's true even for people who really ought to know better.

BOWERS: This project has been going on for some time. And I actually got engaged and married during the process. And I said to my husband, I said, Brian, you know, you've got to go, and you've got to get a used ring. It's where all the value is. And he said, I can't do it. I don't care what your research is. I can't do it.

VEDANTAM: I asked Anne how she could be so sure her fiance actually hadn't bought the tainted ring and taken advantage of the discount that came with it while telling her that it was brand new.

BOWERS: That's a good point. That's a good point. And he is a very rational, strategic person, so he may have just known about the story. It's going to be an interesting dinner tonight. That's all I can say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Anne Bowers at the University of Toronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Speaking of getting engaged, it isn't only lovebirds who are happy on Valentine's Day. A major source of happiness when it comes to romance is in setting up other people. I recently had a conversation with NPR's David Greene about this topic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: You know, matchmaking is something that far predates the Internet. It's something that has been in every country and every culture for as long as we know. But now as computers and algorithms and websites, like OkCupid and Tinder and match.com, take over the job of setting up matches, there's new research that this might come at a price. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain that price. What is it, Shankar?

VEDANTAM: The price is really to matchmakers, David. I recently came by research by Lalin Anik at Duke University. Along with Michael Norton, she finds that matchmaking is a significant source of happiness for many people. So here's what the researchers did. They examined the happiness of people who reported they like to play matchmaker and did it a lot against the happiness levels of people who didn't. And they find that, in general, matchmakers are happier than non-matchmakers.

GREENE: I love that we actually don't care about talking about the people who actually matched.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GREENE: We're talking about the happiness of the matchmakers. But couldn't it be that just happy people tend to be the matchmakers, they decide to do this?

VEDANTAM: That's right. So this is just a correlation. We don't know what's causing what. So to sort this out, the researchers ran a series of experiments where they had volunteers play matchmaker in a lab. And they find the act of making matches increases happiness. They also find that when volunteers are given a chance to make unusual or unexpected matches, they experience greater boosts in happiness. And this probably explains why if you are single, your matchmaker friends keep trying to introduce you to people with whom you have absolutely nothing in common.

GREENE: Because they really want to accomplish something by finding that unlikely duo that could come together.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right.

GREENE: Well, Shankar, if people were sort of relied on these matchmakers to make these unexpected, unusual matches because it makes them happy, is that sort of going away because computer algorithms are now, you know, not really finding those unusual duos?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, David. Many of these computer algorithms are designed to match people who are similar to them so people actually can go to these websites and say, I want someone who has exactly the same interests and personality and characteristics that I do. And so the computers are finding matches. They're not finding unusual connections. And as I read the study, David, I realized that we have lots and lots of websites for single people to find partners. What we might really want is a website for matchmakers so that they can continue to make these really unusual matches. I'm not sure it would increase the happiness levels of single people. It would probably increase the happiness levels of matchmakers.

GREENE: And a few single people who would find these unexpected matches.

VEDANTAM: Yes, I can tell that you're a matchmaker at heart, David.

GREENE: I am. Great to be matched with you this morning in the studio.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GREENE: Take care, Shankar. Thanks.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

When we come back, Dan Pink returns for another round of Stopwatch Science. We'll share some interesting research about what makes couples compatible and why it might be less about chemistry and more about vocabulary. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Hey, listeners. We're doing an episode on traffic, and we are looking for nightmare stories. Do you suffer through rush hour, had a bad experience driving in a different city or a country? What about road rage? Give us a call, and tell us your story at 661-77-BRAIN.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Back now for another round of Stopwatch Science, I'm Shankar Vedantam. I'm joined as always by Daniel Pink, our senior Stopwatch Science correspondent. Welcome, Dan.

PINK: Thank you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: On Stopwatch Science, Dan and I give one another 60 seconds to summarize interesting social science research. As we approach the 60-second mark, our producers Kara and Maggie will bring up the music to drown us out just like they do at the Oscars. Our topic today is love. Dan Pink is widely known as the love guru.

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: And so, Dan, I can't wait to see what you have discovered for Stopwatch Science. We're going to give you insights into why we love, who we love and also, once Dan stops laughing, how to make love last.

PINK: The only person laughing harder at that is my wife.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) All right, love guru, if you're ready, your first 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: OK, now this February 14, millions of Americans are expected to pop the question. But which of the resulting marriages are likely to last? In October, two Emory University economists tackled that question. They surveyed more than 3,000 people, controlled for a bunch of demographic and social variables and found - and I'm quoting the paper's abstract now - "that marriage duration is inversely associated with spending on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony."

VEDANTAM: Wow.

PINK: In other words, the more money a couple spent on the wedding or the ring, the more likely they later were to split up. Now the researchers found only a correlation. They don't say that a lavish ceremony or a 6-carat diamond causes divorce, not at all. And the correlation wasn't perfect in all cases. However, the economists did find a tight connection between cheap celebrations and longer marriages. And that's intriguing especially in a world where a multibillion-dollar wedding industrial complex urges young people to declare their love by breaking the bank.

VEDANTAM: That is really interesting, Dan. Of course, what this means is that wedding planners, jewelers and florists will never sponsor HIDDEN BRAIN ever again.

PINK: (Laughter) Although, I should point out as the love guru that you do have a sponsor that's a mattress company. So that's...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) All right, here's my theory on why it is the researchers found what they did. If you are deeply, truly, madly in love with someone, you might not actually need a big ring...

PINK: Interesting.

VEDANTAM: ...Or a big ceremony to prove your love. On the other hand, if you're kind of, sort of, maybe, possibly in love with this other person, you might actually use the ring or a lavish ceremony to compensate for this hole in your heart.

PINK: Whoa, hole in the heart, it's an interesting argument. You have a some kind of emotional deficit, and you cure it with what economists call signaling.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

PINK: Could be - they actually had a much more pedestrian reason for it. They said that expensive weddings cause people to go into debt, debt causes stress in a marriage, and marriages with stress are more likely to break up, more pedestrian. I think I like the hole in the heart theory a lot better.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: Speaking of a hole in my heart, I'll have a hole in my heart if you go over your time.

VEDANTAM: Oh.

PINK: Your 60 seconds starts right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, psychologists and economists have long known about an interesting phenomenon called the endowment effect. Basically, when something comes into my possession, I think of it differently than before I owned it. So I might be willing to pay $10 for a mug, but once I own the mug, I want $20 to part with it. Thomas Wallsten and Colette Nataf at the University of Maryland recently applied this idea to the dating market. They find that when they offered men and women profiles of potential partners, people demonstrated the endowment effect. They were willing, for example, to spend $4 to buy the contact information of a man or a woman, but they wanted $10 to sell the contact information to someone else. Curiously, the researchers found that women are especially prone to this bias. There was one guy for whom women, on average, were willing to spend $3.97 to buy his contact information, but they wanted $23.50...

PINK: Whoa.

VEDANTAM: ...To sell the contact information to someone else. Now since the endowment effect is primarily about loss aversion, meaning people care more about losses than about gains, it suggests that women may experience more loss aversion when it comes to potential dating partners than do men. Now I don't know what the moral of the story is, Dan. Maybe, you know, find someone who is as unwilling to part with your phone number as you are unwilling to part with theirs.

PINK: (Laughter) I'm just hoping my contact information is worth more than three or four bucks.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: Do you think there's - you know, inevitably, on a study like this, one could offer an evolutionary explanation for the reproductive strategies of women and men being different. Is that what's going on here?

VEDANTAM: You know, I think the authors speculate that that might be at play. I have to say that I myself am skeptical about that because I feel like it's really difficult to disentangle what biology is telling us to do from what culture and our social norms are telling us to do. But speaking of biological and cultural imperatives, Dan...

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: ...Your next 60 seconds starts right now.

PINK: If you're like me, Valentine's Day always brings to mind two words, assortative mating.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: That's the term scientists use to describe when living creatures, including human beings, mate with those who are like themselves. Over the last half century, there has been an upsurge in assortative mating in the U.S. In particular, people with college degrees or beyond are now much more likely to marry other people with college degrees or beyond than they were back in the mid-20th century. So what does this mean for America? Well, four economists, led by Jeremy Greenwood of the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed data from hundreds of thousands of U.S. households between 1960 and 2005. Using some complicated math, they made a startling discovery. Had the U.S. more or less maintained the marriage patterns of 1960 when people were more likely to marry those with different levels of education, income inequality today would be about 21 percent lower. Put another way, one explanation for rising inequality is that marriage is becoming more socially stratified. You know, marriage is a private choice, of course. But what this research tells us is that private choices can have public consequences.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering, Dan, is it possible that the researchers are seeing these findings because the number of women, especially who are graduating from college, is very different today than it was 50 years ago? Could we be seeing this merely because more women are college graduates, and therefore, more people who are college graduates are going to be marrying one another?

PINK: Yeah, not merely because, but that's a big part of it. And you add that to the fact that there are more women in the labor market, and that there are increasing returns in the labor market to education. And what you have is you have these very, very positive trends that create another trend that is less positive because you have the well-educated marrying the well-educated and pulling away. The solution, to my mind at least, is to make sure we raise all boats. So speaking of boats, you need to hop in your canoe...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: ...For 60 seconds of paddling that begins right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, I take back what I said about Dan being the love guru because he clearly knows very little about romance.

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Everyone knows the most important words when it comes to Valentine's Day are not assortative mating but language style matching. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas Austin and colleagues at Wayne State University, Texas A&M and Northwestern University recently analyzed transcripts of conversations between dating couples and also instant messages exchanged by the couples. They find that when couples use the same kinds of language or mimic one another's sentence constructions, they are more likely to hit it off. That could mean being interested in a second date. It could mean sticking in a relationship over the long-term. Now we don't know what's causing what. It's possible that when people are attracted to one another, they start using similar language. It's also possible similar language somehow drives attraction. The clear implication of the study is that when you peer into your date's eyes over that candlelit dinner on Valentine's Day...

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: ...Make sure you transcribe the conversation...

PINK: Of course.

VEDANTAM: ...And analyze it for clues. When your date asks you what you are writing, say that you are testing him or her for pronoun, preposition and article compatibility.

PINK: You know what, that's actually how I met my wife.

(LAUGHTER)

PINK: No, that's fascinating. It's so consistent with other research showing the power of mimicry not only as something that we can fake but something that we do naturally when we have an affinity with somebody.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. All right, so there you have it. Find someone who loves your phone number and will never part with it. If you marry someone who comes from the same social and educational background as yourself, remember that it can have big societal consequences. If you want your next date to go successfully, match your date's pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions. Finally, buy your fiancee a cheap ring, get married at City Hall...

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: ...And say, darling, Dan Pink told me to do it this way.

PINK: All right, so I've gone from the love guru to the divorce doctor.

VEDANTAM: I guess we just broke up, Dan.

PINK: Yeah, hurts me, I have a hole in my heart.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: All right, thank you so much, Dan.

PINK: Shankar, always a pleasure. Happy Valentine's Day.

VEDANTAM: Happy Valentine's Day to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I'm joined by my friend, Meshelle, the indie-mom of comedy, for a segment that we call Mad Scientist. Welcome, Meshelle.

SHIELDS: Thank you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Meshelle, I'm going to give you the outlines of a research study, and you have to figure out what the study found.

SHIELDS: Wow, no way.

VEDANTAM: Are you ready to put on your lab coat and your...

SHIELDS: I am so ready to put on this fictitious lab coat.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHIELDS: So glad it's fictitious.

VEDANTAM: All right, so there's a man who walks around the city in France. He's pretending just to be a guy on a street, but in reality, he's running an experiment. He stops a series of women, and he says the following thing to each of them. He says, hello, my name is Antoine. I just want to say that I think you're really pretty. I have to go to work this afternoon, and I was wondering if you would give me your phone number. I'll phone you later, and we can have a drink together someplace. Here's the catch, Meshelle. When Antoine goes up to some of the women, he's holding a guitar case. When he goes up to others, he's holding a big sports bag, a gym bag, all right? So some of the women think that Antoine is a musician. Others might be led to believe that he is an athlete of some kind or he's into physical fitness. The question is, does carrying the guitar case or the gym bag make any difference to whether the women give him their phone number, and which one, do you think, makes a difference?

SHIELDS: Wow, that is so interesting, Shankar. I'm sitting here - my head was spinning as you were describing the actual study. I was just like, OK, where is he going? I'll tell you this much. I think that with the guitar, he's only going to draw a certain kind of person, and I think those people are kind of far and few in between. I think with the gym bag, everybody wants someone who they deem is healthy or cares about their health. And even if he's not a professional athlete, I think he's going to get a little more rhythm, if you will, with the gym bag because he's going to look like he cares about his body, and he cares about his health. I think the women that see him with the guitar are going to be a very different kind of woman. But he's in France, so...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHIELDS: He's in France. How did I forget that?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHIELDS: Oh, my gosh. This changes everything, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHIELDS: He's in France. This dude is going to be racked up with numbers with the guitar. What? The French don't care about fitness. They eat baguettes all day. If you eat a lot of bread, clearly you're not preoccupied with health and wellness. So I - you know, I'm going to take that back. He's in France. He's going to kick all kinds of you know what with the guitar. He's going to get every woman he meets, and the study will show that the French have a proclivity for artists and particularly those who can - and if it's acoustic, geez Louise.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHIELDS: If it's acoustic, he's going to be like the Pied Piper. They're going to be following him wherever he goes. I'll go with that. I'll go with he's going to get more women because it's France, he's an artist, and they're really into that.

VEDANTAM: All right, this was a study by Nicolas Gueguen and his colleagues Celine Jacob and Lubomir Lamy, and they find that more women share their phone numbers with Antoine when he is carrying...

SHIELDS: Dun, dun, dun (ph).

VEDANTAM: ...The guitar case.

SHIELDS: Thank you very much.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHIELDS: Thank you very - it took me a second to get there, Shankar. But when I thought about the country...

VEDANTAM: I have to say that your reasoning process was fascinating.

SHIELDS: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: I don't know whether the same results would be found in the United States. So your theory is that this is actually not being driven by gender differences between men and women.

SHIELDS: No.

VEDANTAM: These are cultural differences...

SHIELDS: Cultural.

VEDANTAM: ...That might be unique to France.

SHIELDS: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: That was Meshelle, the indie-mom of comedy. Go online to find her new album, "Funny As A Mother."

SHIELDS: And I'm - and if there's any French listeners, please disregard, you know, my remarks about you guys not caring about your health.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHIELDS: I just did a little, you know, informal, you know, just data collection in my brain, and I thought of baguettes, and I thought of croissants, and I thought - I mean, there's so much bread there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced with love by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and on your local public radio station. Also subscribe to our newsletter. Send us an email to hiddenbrain@npr.org with the word subscribe in the subject line. We might even send you a love letter. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

Copyright © 2016 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.