Monday, February 15, 2010

Last Lori Gottlieb post -- on optimal search theory

Okay, I am now going to create a private right of action which is enforceable against me if I ever blog about about Lori Gottlieb again. If I ever do, any reader of this blog post can call me on it, and I'll buy you a drink and a nice dinner somewhere in the D.C. area, or else any other city in which the gentle reader and I are both spending time. Sometimes I need the threat of financial loss to do things that are good for me -- i.e. to stop rubbernecking at teh crazies of the Internet.

Pnin and I found a copy of her magnum opus prominently displayed in our local Barnes & Noble. I am briefly considering it reading parts of it while sitting on the floor. Note that I would not buy it -- my morbid curiosity does not run that strong -- but I spend a significant portion of my early twenties sitting on the floor of that Barnes and Noble* reading books that I felt were too stupid to buy and then writing snarky reviews of them. Since I wasn't actually good at making friends with people, this struck me as as good a use of one's twenty-third year of life as any. Some old habits die hard.

Anyway, I made this point to Pnin, and he said, "Actually, someone should write a review about how to apply the insights of optimal search theory to mating." He went on to characterize Gottlieb's thesis as "Women should try to find someone who is right at their reservation price, rather than someone who is above their reservation price. " I would translate Gottlieb's thesis into economic terminology somewhat differently: that women should lower their reservation prices. As I understood her original Atlantic piece, she was arguing that women should set lower minimum standards for what's acceptable in a partner. A third possibility: that she herself doesn't know which way to come out. I'm curious how others would so translate her thesis.

The biocons often are clear that women ought to lower their reservation prices. As I read them, their claim is that most women are in the grip of powerful false consciousness narratives due to Stone Age hard wiring. We're biologically drawn to certain kinds of men who send out signals of dominance, they claim. If we women are left to our own devices, we'll be inexorably drawn to waste our precious years of fleeting beauty pining after a few "alpha" types. We'll spurn all the perfectly appropriate "beta" males only until some too late date at which our ovaries have already dried up. The only way for a woman to avoid this terrible fate is to settle early, no matter her subjective feelings of unhappiness at the prospect. Her subjective feelings are unreliable anyway. Granted, I'm not sure that Gottlieb goes quite so far in endorsing all of this as the biocons do. But she winds up in much the same place, for seemingly the same reasons.

I of course wouldn't endorse that reasoning. I generally don't think "Ignore your subjective feelings now and do what I say; you'll thank me later" is good advice to follow in most other life situations either, such as choosing a college major, graduate program, or job. In the relationship context, inarticulate panic about being victim of a false consciousness narrative generally doesn't work out so well either. Gottlieb's "Fat Like Me" essay may actually illustrate the point. Granted, I couldn't quite figure out whether her issue with "Tim" was that a)she was attracted to him, but other people didn't think he was attractive, and she was embarrassed or b)she wasn't actually attracted to him, but thought that she should be and was going to try to make things work anyway. If the latter, she might have spared the poor guy considerable misery by not trying to force things.

Another interesting point Pnin made: in light of Gottlieb's "Tim" essay, it may make more sense for someone who's demanding during relationships to try to settle in choosing a partner. Of course, for other people, it might make sense to do just the opposite: be selective in choosing a partner up front, but then be as easy-going and laid-back as possible during the course of the relationship. The second strategy is wiser in my view. It's hard to get people to change.


  1. Hey, A,

    Like the posts--but that's no surprise, because I do every time I sporadically run across your blog.

    I've been understandably following LG with morbid curiosity (as well as paranoia whether she'd write about me again), and I think "A third possibility: that she herself doesn't know which way to come out" is most accurate: she varies her message depending on whether she thinks she's selling books to Flyover America or defending herself to the NY/LA/SF types she's trying to win the respect of. When she retreats from the book cover and chapter titles, it turns out she's not saying anything especially non-obvious.

    On the other hand, I only have guesses what she thought she was doing in dating me. On the other other hand, the love of my life exposed me to far more misery for pretty much identically shallow reasons in a much longer and more serious relationship before breaking it off without any warning. So I'm clearly not very good at avoiding the problem in the first place.

    Tell Professor S. that someone's already applied the "insights of optimal search theory to mating"; it's the famous (and readily google-able) "secretary problem."



    P.S. I don't understand Slate's complaint that my story wasn't subject to fact-checking. It's not like anyone fact-checked "Fat Like Him." What's up with that?

  2. Tim himself --

    So you're a Volokh reader who found his way over here from there? I guess that shouldn't surprise me; by both your and Gottlieb's accounts, you're a lawyer with somewhat more nerdy than average interests, which is of course the demographic from which most VC readers hail. I wouldn't have pegged the writer of the Jezebel piece as libertarian. But maybe you're one of the handful of liberals who reads the VC for insight into what the other side is thinking?

    For the record, I'm not against shallowness. I'm not sure shallowness about looks is any less defensible deontologically from, say, refusing to date a guy who complained that he found reading National Review way too hard because the paragraphs were too long. (Not that I would know anything about that...) I suspect most people fall along some continuum in terms of the subjective value they get out of contemplating a partner's looks. Very few of us get so little value that we care at all, but very few of us get so much value that we're willing to jettison everything else we care about for someone stunning who's otherwise unsuitable. The trouble is how to figure out where one is along that continuum early so as to avoid inflicting needless misery on others.

    Reading about the secretary problem reminds me of a Marginal Revolution post from a few years ago about modal wives. I can't find it right now -- sometimes I am a total failure at the Internet -- but I think that the conclusion was to date widely up until a certain age, and then marry the first person who came along who seemed better than all of the others.