Last summer, a video went viral showing a guy asking a girl out on a date via drone after seeing her dancing on a neighboring rooftop. Because the invitation came at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown, they began the date with a socially distanced dinner on their respective roofs, and later went for a romantic walk wearing a full-body bubble suit while the world watched over TikTok. The video perfectly visualized that in 2020 the costs of finding a new partner had suddenly skyrocked.
Prior to the pandemic, I had been on countless dates. It was a fun way to explore my new city, Copenhagen, and despite the $10 price for a specialty filter coffee in a hip cafe by the lakes (in Scandinavia, it’s typical for everyone pays their share on a date, so no free-riding possible), the costs of meeting potential partners were modest. Some dates I met at events or through friends and others on dating apps. I spent a summer in Stockholm with a guy I met because I saw him reading the The Undoing Project. On a trip to San Diego, I matched with a cancer-curing professor who had a Breaking Bad–style cannabis extraction lab in his garage, and I met a tech entrepreneur with whom I discussed, until we were the last people in the restaurant, Hans Rosling’s biography .
In March 2020, everything changed. Staying single for the indefinite future, when everyone was urged to quarantine with people from their own household, didn’t seem very appealing. I needed to reconsider my dating strategy. How could I optimize the costs and benefits of finding a partner in a global pandemic?
I needed to reconsider my dating strategy. How could I optimize the costs and benefits of finding a partner in a global pandemic?
Luckily, I know a thing or two about high-stakes decisions. For the past 10 years, I have been researching optimal decision-making. As an assistant professor in economics, I teach game theory, the mathematical modeling of strategic decisions between people. In my research, using big data and experiments, I try to answer two key questions: How can we predict what people will do in various situations? And how can we design policies that help them make better decisions? So maybe, I thought, I could put this knowledge to use in my private life.
As an economist, I have always appreciated the efficiency of dating apps—thousands of possible matches without leaving the house. And now, confined to my home office of my first floor apartment, I couldn’t bank on random rooftop encounters to find my match. Dating apps, which used to be a nice addition to making connections, suddenly became the most efficient and safest option for most singles in the world. So it was time to pay them some more focused attention.
Through the lens of game theory, app-based dating can be seen as a type of strategic interaction, also called “a game,” between (more or less) rational decision-makers. Based on a limited amount of information (three to four pictures, a couple of sentences, some basic demographics) and a limited set of actions (swipe left, swipe right), users can search through dozens of profiles in a few seconds to try to score a date, who may eventually become a long-term partner.
Thinking like a game theorist and analyzing the different parts of “the game” one by one can help app newbies and seasoned swipers alike who are looking to update their strategy. Using my own experience as a cisgender, heterosexual woman as an example, I’ll analyze the different steps of online dating, from choosing an app to crafting your profile, and will illustrate how game theory can help you find your match. Because that’s the beauty of game theory—it analyzes the core of human interactions, regardless of personality, identity, or sexual orientation.
Picking the app
Each app contains a population of potential partners, so choosing an app that is right for you is the first stage of the filtering process. Tinder is perhaps the most well-known and most popular, offering a large user base and a greater number of potential matches. However, the popularity of Tinder means that there are many unserious profiles of users whose goal may simply be to pass time or collect matches. On the other end of the spectrum are hyper-specialized dating apps, some of which friends had recommended to me. There’s Veggly, which targets the vegan singles market, and Datefit, a fitness junky app. Both match singles based on their main interest, but this specificity comes as a cost as the pool of potential matches shrinks.
Through the lens of game theory, app-based dating can be seen as a type of strategic interaction, also called “a game,” between (more or less) rational decision-makers.
For me, rather than restricting to only hummus lovers or marathon runners, I wanted an app that would attract individuals with a range of interests while targeting those who were looking for something serious. Hinge—which publicizes the tagline “Designed to be deleted” and employs Logan Ury, a behavioral scientist, on their development team—seemed like it fit the bill. Commitment is even baked into filing out your Hinge profile. Unlike other apps, Hinge requires each user to upload at least three pictures and fill out three prompts. This feature screens out those who are less serious about actually connecting. If someone won’t bother filling out three sentences about themselves, how likely are they to respond to your messages?
Having found the right app (or apps, if multiple ones fit your preferences), you then need to decide on a strategy how to find the right matches.
Setting a swipe strategy
Every app will ask you to set your preferences—for instance, marking that you’re looking for a relationship or just a fling—and to plug in demographics like age, education level, and location. And for good reason; there is plenty of research on assortative mating showing that we tend to end up with people who are similar to us, both in objective characteristics such as education and geographic proximity, as well as more subjective measures like appearance and personality traits. With that research in mind, I restricted the profiles I could see to men in the Copenhagen area, between 30 and 40, employed, with at least a Bachelor’s degree. But even when you narrow down your search in this way, there’s still the potential problem of choice overload. I was left with several hundred men to choose from. So how can you narrow down the search further?
This is where the game theory comes in handy. When using an app, it is important to identify the dominant strategy for each “player” (and no, I’m not only referring to the jerks—everyone is a player in a game theory model). In game-theorist terms, the “dominant strategy” is the best response to all the possible strategies that the other players might employ. On most apps the available strategies are: swipe right to try to match, or swipe left to reject. If your aim is to maximize your matches, you should always swipe right. This way you match with everyone who swiped right on you.
When using an app, it is important to identify the dominant strategy for each “player” (and no, I’m not only referring to the jerks—everyone is a player in a game theory model).
Are you better off playing the dominant strategy by swiping right on everyone? This varies based on a number of factors, including the app you’re using, what you’re looking for (casual dating or long-term relationship), and who you’re looking to date. Many men interested in women play the dominant strategy of swiping right on every profile. If you, as a heterosexual woman, respond to this strategy by swiping right on all men, this would leave you with hundreds of matches, many low-quality. And while all those matches might be flattering, you would still need to figure out who to message and ultimately meet up with. Thus, if you’re using an an app where a significant portion of users swipe right on everyone, then the best response is to swipe left unless you have a serious interest in talking to someone.
The next challenge is how to infer from a few pieces of information who might be a good match and worthy of a right-swipe, and who isn’t.
Cheap talk versus signaling
Let’s see what came up in my app. In one profile, I see the guy is standing next to a fancy car in a suit—swipe left, no thanks. Next guy: abs, arms, tattoos, gym selfie in the mirror—swipe left. One hundred men who like coffee, wine, and traveling—who doesn’t? And lots and lots of guys on boats (I live in Copenhagen, but still).
Since nothing on the app is verified, everything people write about themselves is what game theorists call “cheap talk.” Cheap talk is information that is costless for the sender to provide. It is useful when the sender has no incentive to lie, such as stating in their profile that they prefer sushi to pizza. However, when it comes to desirable but less obvious traits, such as a sense of adventure or ambition, then cheap talk can be misleading. For example, anyone can write that they are an adventurous person—but does that mean they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, or that they dared to order the daily special in the office cafeteria?
Since nothing on the app is verified, everything people write about themselves is what game theorists call “cheap talk.” Cheap talk is information that is costless for the sender to provide.
This is where signaling comes in. In game theory terms, a signal is a message that is costly for the sender. For example, posting a picture of yourself skydiving is a costly signal—you had to actually jump out of a plane to get the picture. So when I look for someone to swipe right on, I look for the costly signals and discard (or at least remain skeptical of) all cheap talk.
Crafting a profile
When crafting your own profile, you should consider highlighting the attributes you’re most proud of and which others find attractive. This what game theorists would call a “separating strategy.” By highlighting these traits in your profile, you’re distinguishing yourself from everyone else. You could write your height, which instrument you play, or any impressive achievement. For your less strong attributes, you should consider playing a “pooling strategy.” If you don’t explicitly write that you don’t play an instrument or have never run a marathon, then potential matches won’t know whether you don’t have those skills or just haven’t written them down.
Men are often judged on height and income, but for highly educated women, like me, the main question is whether to put my Ph.D. and job description on my profile. Sadly, there is plenty of evidence that men might be scared away. Lora Park and coauthors found that while most men claim that they are looking for smart, successful women in theory, they don’t want to date them in practice. My experimental economist side was, of course, curious to test this myself. After trying both, I did find that my overall number of matches increased when I left out that I was an economics professor. But in the end I decided to leave it in, as taking it out would only postpone the inevitable. Sooner or later, everyone will ask what I do for a living, and it’s much more efficient to sort out men early who feel intimidated.
When I look for someone to swipe right on, I look for the costly signals and discard (or at least remain skeptical of) all cheap talk.
On the app you might also want to keep an eye out for any deal breakers. Dating during the pandemic has brought a useful new signal for characteristics that are usually hard to judge in brief interactions. It is now easier to pick out more responsible and less narcissistic partners just by looking at whether they are wearing a mask. Because users might have very different attitudes toward social distancing, the dating app Bumble even added a badge feature that allowed users to signal what type of date they would be comfortable with—digital, in person with mask, or in person?
Even with the most perfectly crafted bio, the truth is that people are often judged by their attractiveness. Pictures remain the main feature in any app. So in the time of Facetune and Photoshop, one might be tempted to increase one’s chances with a flattering filter. In one of my research studies with Katja Görlitz and Martin Dufwenberg (still preliminary work), we extend Martin’s “lies in disguise” model to simulate the trade-off between the benefit of making yourself slightly more attractive in a tournament (such as online dating) and the loss of being perceived as a liar by your audience. If you cheat by making yourself more attractive with the help of Photoshop, you are more likely to “win” the tournament of matches, but you might also feel guilty for being outed as a liar once you meet with a match in person. (From experience, I can say that the level of guilt for looking nothing like your pictures varies quite a bit among app users, as it did in our laboratory experiment.)
Did I find a match?
By now you might be curious to know, did an understanding of game theory and behavioral economics help me find a match?
In April, I received a message from a handsome assistant professor. I noticed his “signals” of ambition and taste for adventure through the mention of his postdoc in the Middle East and the pictures of his trip to Asia. He showed humor by posing with a huge stuffed toy-tiger, not a sedated one. When I read that he also makes excellent hummus, I knew I needed to get to know him better. And he certainly wasn’t put off by my job title.
As we chatted over videochat and attended performances of the Royal National Theater from our living rooms, we discovered that we had grown up just half an hour from each other, that we had the frequented the same club in Berlin during our bachelor’s studies (on different dance floors though, me pop and he rock), and that we both did our Ph.D. in Denmark and then left for postdocs abroad before coming back to Denmark. Had I moved to Sweden four weeks later, we would have attended the same Ph.D. defense of a common friend in 2014. Who knows how many times we had crossed paths before?
In May, we met for a socially distanced stroll and coffee in the Copenhagen sun. Soon after, the Hinge app was ready to be deleted. As I am writing this in January 2021, he is grading papers next to me on the green velvet couch we picked out together. Luckily, it didn’t require a drone and a bubble suit to find love during the pandemic. Just a good dating app strategy and a little bit of luck.