Date-onomics

This short spark plug of a book written in 2015 by author Jon Birger was hard to put down. The book is informative on the idea of “marriage markets” and makes the case that, “college and post-college hookup culture, the decline in marriage rates among college-educated women, and the dearth of marriage-material men willing to commit are all by-products of lopsided gender ratios and a massive undersupply of college educated men.” (p. 5)

Recall from an earlier blog post, when there are more women relative to men, women compete with each other and effectively lower their “asking price” (their share of the marital benefits). This also applies to dating markets too. If you’re having trouble seeing how sex ratios matter, consider this example from the book,

“Among undergrads at UNC there are 50 percent more women than men …” That is for every 40 men there are 60 women which means 3 women for every 2 men, “If you want to visualize what 3:2 looks like, imagine you’re back in college. Imagine it’s late at night, and you’re hanging out with friends in someone’s dorm room. Imagine everyone has had a few beers, the mood is flirty, and people are thinking about pairing off. Now imagine there are three women and two men.” 

The competitive pressure of musical chairs described above leads to a reduction in the “asking price” for relational benefits.Put another way, lopsided gender ratios alter the prevailing norms that exist within a particular dating market. In the case of women outnumbering men, the change is that relationships look more like something the average man would want and less like something the average woman would want.

In one stunning example provided, the author looks at the Sarah Lawrence campus that is 75% women and 25% men or a 3:1 ratio. This ratio makes it hard to maintain relationships because the asking price has been bid down so low, “Most straight men at Sarah Lawrence had no interest in a committed relationship. ‘Why would they?’ …’It’s like they have their own free harem’ …  [Students at Sarah Lawrence] have an expression for guys who let their sexual good fortune go their heads. ‘It’s called the Golden Cock Syndrome.’” (p. 24) The dating culture at Sarah Lawrence is mostly about hooking up and from the book sounds traumatic for (at least some) women and like a fantasy world for the men. Once again, the lopsided gender ratio where women outnumber men makes the dating market look more like something the average man would want and less like something the average woman would want.

If you look at Niche.com posts where individuals talk about the dating culture at different schools you get the feeling there is definitely a relationship between sex ratios and prevailing norms (from the Appendix of Date-onomics).

Georgia Tech (34 percent women, 66 percent men): “Tech is a fairly monogamous campus … [F]or the most part, people like to be in relationships.”

University of Michigan (50 percent women, 50 percent men): “If you’re seeking a relationship, chances are you’ll find the person you’re looking for.”

University of Florida (58 percent women, 42 percent men): “[I]n most circles, there isn’t exactly a prejudice against more random-hook ups.”

Sarah Lawrence College (75 percent women, 25 percent men): “[T]he girls complain about loneliness, the guys get more than they can handle … and mindless, one-night stands are rampant.”

A study from sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker document a decline in the share of women who are virgins by the percentage of women on a college campus. As women increase as a share of the student body, the fraction of women who have had sex also increases. Of course, someone could simply note that schools that have these different gender ratios are quite different from each other. Perhaps they attract different individuals to begin with and that explains the differences in reported behavior. But, there’s also data from experiments reported on in the book that show that women had an increased preference for facial symmetry in the condition where men outnumbered women (implying they could be more selective) (p. 63) There are also examples from other contexts like the one I discuss in that earlier blog post (linked earlier in post) that have better causal identification. 

Speaking of other examples. There are many more shared throughout the book. Birger also traces these sex ratios to dating markets like NYC compared to San Francisco. One anecdote he tells is of a friend who couldn’t find a committed relationship after years in NYC but after three months in San Francisco found a serious relationship, “ `People don’t want to think of dating as a numbers game but it is’ For women, the numbers game in New York is brutal..” (p. 78) Match-makers in NYC receive large volumes of women who want to make a match but have a hard time finding men interested in making a long-term commitment. Men are mostly interested uncommitted sexual relationships. This is why at least one matchmaker in the book advises single women over 35 to leave the city (p. 85). 

Not scientific, but my barber who was a bachelor in NYC nodded knowingly when I asked him about this phenomenon. He said, “We call it the Peter Pan syndrome. Guys just have a hard time growing up.” Put another way, guys have a hard time committing because they don’t have to in order to gain access to the relational benefits they value.

The lopsided gender ratio can also work in the other direction. For example, the China one-child policy led to a bias toward boys with (mostly) little girls tragically being aborted, abandoned, or killed. The dating culture looks less like Sarah Lawrence and more like a Victorian-era courtship. Men invest significant resources to make themselves more attractive mates (pp. 69 – 70).

One of the things I like best about this book — honestly it would not nearly be as good without it — is the chapter on how sex ratios operate even in religious communities. Specifically, Birger examines Mormons and Orthodox Jews. This is running a little longer than I had hoped and perhaps I’ll circle back to that in a later post.

Date-onomics was a well-written book and hard to put down. There is so much more I could say, but perhaps the best compliment I could give is that if I assigned this book for my Economics of the Family and Religion class, I am certain students would read it.

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