ESSA

ESSA

Average is Better


Tom Xia

By

October 4th, 2013


Tom Xia explores the lessons economics teaches us when selecting a suitable partner.


With recent technological innovation opening doorways to new methods of social interaction, the world’s ocean is radically becoming larger and larger. And I do not use ‘ocean’ in the literal sense, but rather metaphorically, to classify the pool of potential mates for any particular individual. Access to a larger pool of candidates comes with it a greater difficulty and added pressure on finding “the one”.

Whether we choose to take the traditional approach of trying to pick-up in bars or utilising new technology through mediums such as online-dating or chat-rooms, simple economic principles teach us that our criteria for attractive mates should be roughly equivalent. That is to say, we have an optimal choice when it comes to selecting our partners, regardless of which factors we rank as more important than the other. In economics, we call this preference. Since men, in general, are reputed to be shallower than women, I thought for the purposes of this article it would be interesting to reverse the tables and lead the discussion through a woman’s perspective.

Let’s assume for the moment that a woman only looks for two things in a man, their facial aesthetics (FA) and their wealth (W). Erroneous though this assumption may be (who has height and physique?), it lays the foundation for the scene I am about to describe. Imagine, on a cold winter’s night, a woman and her girlfriends are walking along a street to their favourite bar. Along the way, she passes a stunningly handsome beggar on the street, covered in rags as he tries to shield himself from the harsh winds. Wondering why he isn’t modelling for Calvin Klein, she passes over him and arrives at her destination. Inside, her eyes fall upon an old man in his late 60s, well-groomed and dressed in a suit she feels would cost more than her entire wardrobe. She passes closer and overhears him boasting about the great party he hosted on his private yacht over the weekend. Upon closer inspection however, she recoils at the sight of his scarred, sagging face.  She turns her back on him and follows her friends to the bar.

If her choice for a partner was limited to only these two men, her preference would boil down to her ranking of the two factors, FA and W, based on the level of happiness and utility she derived from them. If she derives higher utility from FA than W, then she would choose the beggar. Another woman may instead prefer W over FA, and so she would pick the rich old geezer instead. These preferences are all individualistic, but if you remember my saying in the introduction, economics teaches us that the criteria for choosing mates should be roughly equivalent. This notion leads us to the discussion of convex preferences, a property of an individual’s ranking of alternatives which implies that consumers prefer a combination of goods rather than a ‘all-or-nothing’ of one particular good. In other words, averages are preferable. The economic framework behind this reasoning is the idea of a diminishing marginal rate of substitution, the willingness to trade one good for another whilst still deriving the same utility as before. As an individual obtains more and more of a particular good x, then they are less willing to give up an additional unit of y for another unit of x. Hence, they prefer combinations of x and y than the extremes at both ends.

In applying this model, we return back to the previous scenario but instead introduce a third male. He is neither extremely handsome nor extremely rich, but he is approachable and can afford to shout a few drinks for our lady friend. In essence, he is the average of the two extremes described earlier. Regardless of whether the woman prefers FA over W or vice versa, she would find herself attracted to the third male over the other two. If we were to relax our earlier assumption of only two factors to consider, our optimal choice for partners would still encompass this concept as we would prefer individuals who are average in all attractive qualities than those who simply excel at one or two. Ultimately, the overall package we present is more important than the individual segments we use to make it up.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • Vanessa Cheung

    Hi Tom,
    I really enjoyed reading your article; very entertaining!
    Vanessa

  • Owen Wakely

    Hi Tom, a very erudite and thoughtful analysis of a common conundrum. But alas you have made the rookie mistake of not considering an often confounding variable, i.e., beer goggles! Beer goggles can both enhance and dampen (and at the same time!) any one of the features or preferences you discuss: ignore their effect at your peril Tom! Cheers Owen

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