Video Case Study: The Dating Game in a Principles Lecture

Contact: Dr. G. Dirk Mateer
Department of Economics, Penn State University, USA
Published November 2008 (video put online August 2007)

This demonstration is used to introduce game theory as an application in the dating market.

In this activity I invite five student volunteers to come up in front of the class and give their names. I then have each student randomly select one index card with the numbers, "5, 8, 8, 8, and 1." After they draw a card I explain to them that the cards represent how they look on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being "hot" and 1 being "not." This usually draws a reaction from the rest of the class. At this point I let the person with the "1" know that they are actually a "10" and I give them a "0" to go with the "1" they are already holding.

The idea behind the demonstration is to get the class to realize that we can discern additional information about a person, beyond their looks, by observing who they hang out with. With any person, some traits are unobservable -- like personality, being funny, or an attentive listener -- these traits make some people more attractive overall but you could not tell this just by looking at them so when someone is able to hang with others who are clearly more attractive it signals that they have positive unobservable traits.

To illustrate this point, I pair the 5 with the three 8's and ask the class to imagine that the four of them are hanging out at a party. I then ask the class if the 5 looks better or worse when paired with the 8's. The class's first reaction was that the 5 now looks worse in comparison to the 8's. However, this is misleading. If a 5 can hang out with 8's it must be that the 5 has unobservable traits that are better than we can observe. This counterintuitive result is the hook that gets everyone to pay extra attention and creates a memorable learning moment.

I extend the idea by asking how we should view the 10. Strangely, the rules about being superficial do not apply to the 10 - there are no reasons to play games when approaching a 10, you should be yourself and let the 10 decide if they have interest in you. It may well be that you have a great deal in common and those connections will form a meaningful friendship even if your "looks" are not the same. However, if you wish to be seen as a more desirable dating partner at a party then hanging with pretty people, by being superficial, will improve your chances of finding someone better looking.

Students also enjoy seeing their classmates make decisions - the students easily place themselves into the role themselves and they therefore internalize the lesson better because they can: (1) recall the activity from class, (2) relate to the activity through personal experiences where they go out with their friends.

YouTube video

Some highlights [time into video]:*

  • [0:15] The teacher gets volunteers for a dating game-who will volunteer more: guys or girls?
  • [1:39] Students are judged to be hot or not (in a polite and random way)
  • [2:00] The main topic is introduced: how can you improve your position in the dating market using economics and game theory?
  • [2:25] Names are announced to the class. I think the student with a score of 10 out of 10 is secretly smiling.
  • [3:18] How an average person, a 5 out of 10, thinks strategically in the marketplace
  • [4:00] The first step to gaining an edge in the dating marketplace is introduced
  • [4:40] Why having attractive friends will make your personality look better
  • [5:10] Why supermodels don't have to be to be superficial
  • [5:58] A student is put in the spotlight when playing the game. I burst into laughter, as does the class.
  • [6:02] What NOT to say when asking out someone attractive
  • [6:38] When it makes sense to be yourself versus being superficial
  • [6:58] A good concluding remark

* Thanks to Presh Talwalkar for the timings.

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