You love her, she loves you not: understanding how biases shape both your dating life and public policy.
I had an interesting conversation about a piece I would like to work on and my interlocutor suggested that policy makers don’t always care about socially awkward issues, such as prostitution because they don’t consider it as a real problem–“we don’t see it therefore it doesn’t exist” kind of logic. And what’s considered real problem? The one real people care about. If real people (i.e. not drug addicts, rough sleepers, sex workers) don’t care about an issue, positive change will never occur in this particular policy area. Prostitution is a great example of how public opinion shaped public policy or better, the omission of the latter. We have records showing that prostitution has been a thing since 2,400 BC but Western society keeps feeling uncomfortable about it; in the last 10 to 20 years, it even managed to create class privilege within an industry that has been around for thousands of years (you can click here to read about the history of prostitution – it’s fascinating!). We found fancier terms such as escorting that are more socially acceptable, with a clear failure to adopt inclusive and sustainable policies.
So, if individuals’ perceptions shape public discourse and policy actions, what affects peoples’ point of views? If our opinion is so important for political action (or inaction), isn’t equally important to understand what shapes our own opinions?
As I woke up in very good mood, I want to examine human reasoning through discussing the dating experience. So, I decided to use the answers to 60 random blind dates questionnaires (including both homosexual and heterosexual dates) to test my behavioural economics hypothesis on modern dating. Simply put, we are not as clever as we think we are and I used dating to prove it. If we are not that clever when it comes to having dinner with another human being, imagine, how deeply biased and prejudiced we can be with more complicated social issues. I will say something that I’ve repeated several times (as Ancient Greeks and Latins used to say “repetition is the mother of all learning”, so read on!): humans are biased and understanding one’s own cognitive weaknesses may lead to an open mind, able to question and update pre-existing beliefs based on newly acquired information.
There are three types of dates:
♥ The bad date: an experience shared by both parties involved, both knowing that as soon as they walk out of that pub, with abit of luck, they won’t have to see each other again. Excuses such as ‘I need to leave early because today it’s my rabbit’s birthday and we’ve organized a surprise party’ are not uncommon.
♥ The unilateral good date: As implied, this is one-person experience. Optimism about a second date isn’t shared by both parties. One is sure that “this was great we should totally do it again” and one feels confused when the messages go unanswered.
♥ The click date: otherwise, known as the objectively good date, an experience shared by both parties involved. The legend has it that when two individuals meet, their chemistry and quickly established connection lead to increased levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin and therefore to a feeling of euphoria.
While I was scrolling down Guardian’s homepage, I saw the Blind Date column. It’s pretty self-explanatory, people that haven’t seen each other, they go out on a date and they answer a questionnaire regarding this experience afterwards. I found fascinating the answers to below questions: a) the overall ‘mark’ for the date b) whether these two strangers would meet again.
Common sense would suggest that the answers to these questions would be similar among individuals involved in the same experience. But it was astonishing how different they were – sometimes, I actually wondered whether these people were on the same date, at the same time. Awkward!
The astonishing 45% of blind daters – more than 4 in 10 people – either gave significantly higher overall mark to their date and/or erroneously, thought that a second date may occur. The 48.3% had similar experience, either good or bad and the 6.6% involved dates in which one expressed the desire to meet again with the other person and the other specifically, mentioned that would meet as friends – because everyone searches for their next best friend on Bumble.
Thankfully for you, I checked my extended list of cognitive biases and I found the ones that could be applied in this context and help us understand the above extremely complicated pie chart.
Confirmation bias: Or simply put ‘I am convinced that this date went well so I will seek evidence confirming my belief and I will disregard any evidence, any behavioural or social cues showing the contrary’. You’ve got to love confirmation bias -it’s the quintessence of our self-delusion. For one party, a smile and nodding of the head are interpreted as chemistry and a peck on the cheek becomes a quick kiss after the first date. However, for the other person, both non-verbal cues are simply perceived as ‘good manners’.
Courtesy bias: This is a bias most of us are prone to. It’s this urge to find something nice to say about your colleague’s horrible haircut or your pal’s boring new boyfriend/ girlfriend. Humans want to avoid confrontation at all costs and this is why, at subconscious level, they try to find reasons to like a person. Even if they clearly don’t.This could be one of reasons why Guardian’s blind daters were so inconsistent. In order to avoid saying what they really felt about the date, people would say clichés such as ‘we could totally go out as friends’, or ‘he/she is perfect but just not for me’ or ‘he/she had a kind soul, there was just no spark’. There was even one participant who rated the date as 9/10 but when asked whether they would go out on a second date, he/she admitted that as they didn’t exchange numbers, it was unlikely. Hmm. So, probably, the date wasn’t that great? Just saying. I know it’s very tempting to say the polite thing but life is too short to keep trying to find nice things to say when you don’t, really, need to. Every time you want to come up with a polite cliché, bite your tongue and stay silent – it’s less confusing, energy saving and truly liberating.
Sexual Overperception bias: I’ve observed that men were consistently more likely to report the possibility of a second date or to give higher marks. Where there’s a pattern, there must be a reason. And I found it. It’s called parental investment theory and it basically says that for mammalian males (yes, including your Tinder date), the fitness costs of not trying to have sex are far greater than the costs of time and energy wasted. In given population, if males regularly miss opportunities to have sex, they will be outreproduced by the ones that they don’t. This process led to the evolution of the sexual overperception bias, meaning that men, in both laboratory and non-laboratory environments, are significantly more likely to overestimate women’s sexual intent. So, before you say that the date went well and get ready for a night full of passion and wine, I’d strongly recommend you to pause and reflect whether it isn’t yet another self-delusion.
Optimism bias: This can be defined as “the difference between a person’s expectation and the outcome that follows”. If reality is worse than expectations, the bias is optimistic; if reality is better than expectations, the bias is pessimistic. Humans as well as non-human animals, such as rats and birds, show regularly and consistently, positively biased expectations. We think that we’ll finish a task sooner rather than later; we overestimate the pleasure derived by holidays – reality is much more boring; we convince ourselves that a person can change or even better can change just for our sake even though each one seeks different things from one’s life; and my personal favourite, we believe that “this will work” even though the bad moments clearly outweigh the good ones, creating a situation that is everything but sustainable. Before you start planning your wedding day, it’d be useful to think whether it is not just your – beneficial in other ways – optimism talking.
My point is that if we are not as clever as we think when it comes to something as simple and almost biological as dating and attraction, imagine, how dumb we can become when we express
opinions about issues with highly complex set of variables and information. If we’re dumb, this means that – hopefully – we can become smarter. And if we can change the way we think, then we may change our view of the world. Once this is done, maybe, just maybe, we can address topics that we swept under the carpet for far too long.