Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Is There a Market in Romantic Relationships?

Here is a part of the English version of an Economic Note I published this morning, the original can be viewed in pdf format at: http://www.iedm.org/ :

The tradition of celebrating Valentine’s Day by exchanging greetings and special gestures with loved ones goes back to the Middle Ages. The earliest known piece of writing in this respect is dated 1415. With the noble and idealistic concept of forming couples still in existence today, can we rule out all rationality in amorous deeds? Does the behaviour of men and women who are seeking partners not obey principles that go beyond passion to encompass an element of reason?

Fittingly, a growing number of studies look into the popularity of online dating sites from the angle of market mechanisms. For example, some authors feel they form “economies of attention” since “users compete for the time and effort of others.”

Dating sites may also form “markets in romantic relationships” since they facilitate meetings among people engaging in supply and demand with respect to partners. In this context, anyone who participates in this market is part of both its supply side and its demand side. Men generally offer themselves as male partners that seek female partners, and vice versa for women.

If dating sites truly are markets, their users’ behaviour ought to be influenced by the usual economic determinants: price, quantity, opportunity cost, etc. Through the use of original data from Quebec’s popular RéseauContact site,
[3] this Economic Note aims to depict the rational behaviour that partly guides the search for a partner.[4]


Economic rationality at the heart of the human mind

The aim of this Economic Note is to show how economics can provide explanations for day-to-day behaviour that may seem at first glance to lie outside the field. Economics, of course, cannot explain everything about the social behaviour of human beings. It nonetheless provides partial explanations of these phenomena, with online dating being just one example. Just as humans cannot be reduced to economic models, the field of economics cannot be limited to numbers and mathematical operations. Economic rationality is fundamentally human. It cannot be detached from the human mind because it lies at its very heart.
[1] Andrew Rocco Tresolini Fiore, Romantic Regressions. An Analysis of Behavior in Online Dating Systems, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University, September 2004, p. 18.
[2] Since this Economic Note seeks to illustrate market mechanisms on dating sites in a general way, it focuses on heterosexual relationships, which account for the majority of participants on the reference site. This does not exclude other types of relationship in which dating sites may be involved, in particular searches for same-sex partners or exchanges between couples.
[3] The author wishes to thank Martin Aubut, Mathieu Nezan and Janique Boily of RéseauContact for their collaboration on this project.
[4] The reference here is to neoclassical economic rationality “corresponding to the maximizing behaviour of an economic agent, stemming from the theory of expected utility.” See Gilles Rotillon, “Rationalité néoclassique,” in Claude Jessua et al. (ed.), Dictionnaire des sciences économiques, 2001, p. 780. This theory suggests that economic agents will attempt to maximize their level of satisfaction while minimizing the resources devoting to achieving it.

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