The Economics of Love, from NPR’s Planet Money

NPR’s Planet Money is a wonderful podcast. Their most recent episode is on matters of the heart. In the first part, NPR reporter Lisa Chow shares her online dating approach. The second half is economist Tim Harford answering questions about matters of the heart. And the whole episode was SO GOOD, you guys! You should totally go listen (or better yet, subscribe; their shows are almost always utterly fascinating.)

(Psst! Wanna skip to my advice takeaways? Be my guest!)

You might be surprised that I don’t have any complaints. Not a single thing to nitpick or undermine with my own advice, like I’ve done in the past with Amy Webb’s TED talk and The Verge’s OkCupid interview and the Wired piece about mathematician Chris McKinlay. Everything NPR covered was SOLID! I especially loved how Lisa Chow totally debunks Chana Joffe-Walt’s mistaken myth that online dating is terrible for all women. Team Lisa! 🙂

The Lisa section

Lisa “lowered her transaction costs” by NEVER writing outgoing messages to the guys she was interested in—she just winked. (That feature tells us she was probably doing her dating on This mostly works for populations that are not straight guys—the straight guys tend to need to be the senders of messages. But not always! Fellas can try the wink strategy too, they’re just statistically less likely to attain Lisa-level success.

Note that you’re WAY more likely to be able to lower those costs if your profile and photos and username are all killer; there’s more initial investment (to use economics terms) but your potential passive revenue over time improves? Look, I’m an online dating coach, not an economist, but I think you catch my drift. 🙂 Lisa’s transaction-lowering cost likely worked well for her because she had a good overall profile. I’m bummed we don’t get a link to it, haha.

Lisa’s other economics-based approach was to go on a few dates with people who seemed good but not great, but not to let those relationships draw out forever. She was seeing a kinda so-so guy but hadn’t made it exclusive with him yet, and when she finally met the man who became her husband, this was her reaction:

“Oh, okay, THAT’S what an opportunity cost feels like!”

Don’t you love that geeky reaction? 🙂 What she means is that you may suddenly realize what you would have missed out on if you had settled for someone good but not great. This is great relationship advice for all dating and relationships, to a point! (The over-analytical and constantly dissatisfied may take this to an unhealthy extreme, but most folks would do well to date GREAT, not just good enough. At least when it comes time to settle down.)

The spreadsheet approach she used is also super smart if you’re in a “hardcore let’s get serious” mode, too; not only does it force a certain type of reflection, but it just straight up makes it easier to track. (Especially if you try online dating, quit for a few years, then get back on that horse. Usernames may change, but most daters still find it helpful to track stuff like name and age and sometimes even a picture for reference.) This Excel wizardry reminds me a bit of Melanie Ida Chopko’s illustrated notes! I like that Lisa included a memorable detail, and not just basic boring stats like height and age and profession. It made for a better podcast, but it also makes for a more amusing stroll down memory lane the next time you bust open Excel to amuse your friends.

The Tim Section

Tim took calls from a few different callers, and all his advice and musings seemed spot on. Here are my favorite econ geek specifics:

Hyperbolic discounting—basically, you’re making too big a deal about the downsides/frustrations/perceived lost opportunities in your love life. (This was in regards to a high school senior who didn’t have any dating experience and was worried about this perceived shortcoming.)

Loss aversion—he defines this as “a really disproportionate anxiety about stuff that doesn’t really matter very much.” And this advice was specifically tailored to whether the kid should ask someone out for prom—Tim pointed out that the potential gains were FAR greater than the potential negatives were negative. The kid sounded very pleased with this perspective; I suspect he’ll ask someone to the dance now!

Sunk cost fallacy—we feel a certain investment in a person or activity and we feel the need to see it through. Like, if you paid for a gym membership, you should keep going even if you hate everything about it because you spent that money; much like if you started dating someone when you were 22, you already “invested” 5 years together so it’s a waste if you break up with them even if you’re dissatisfied.

Tim’s advice is to not fret over sunk costs—no point worrying about not having gotten sexual experience or emotional support in your previous chapters of life; it matters more to focus on the future than the past.


Winks mean “message me”—If a straight lady winks at a straight guy, it’s because she wants you to send her a message and ask her out. So do it. 🙂 If you use a site like OkCupid that doesn’t have winks, viewing someone’s profile is roughly equivalent. (If you pay for A-list, make sure to manually use the feature that lets the person see you visited.)

Put in an initial effort—You’re WAY more likely to be able to “lower your transaction cost” à la Lisa if your profile and photos and username are all awesome. This advice is sorta me extrapolating from Lisa’s tales, but I beg you to trust me that it’s true. (By the way, I cover a lot of this winky asky outy stuff plus even more messaging strategies in my most recent newsletter, which you can still get if you sign up now.)

Date at a high volume—Lisa’s 55 dates in one year may feel excessive, but she did them on her terms (no Friday or Saturday night dates because she didn’t freakin’ wanna). You can manage a high volume if you keep it fun for yourself and reserve some time for yourself.

Take on a different online strategy—Just because online dating sucked for you in 2007 doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily suck in 2014. (If you’re stuck on the strategy part, you can always call me for a free intro chat.) Lisa revamped her approach even though she said she’d met people online before. (And her new strategy found her a husband!)

Have fun—Enjoying this whole process sure was successful for Lisa. Be positive about online dating! (Or at least try!)

Take risks—As Tim said, you have much more to gain than to lose from any minor romantic rejection. I think this is ESPECIALLY true online! (A “no thanks” or lack of a reply is way less emotionally risky than getting shot down in person, right?) I see people build up these anxieties in their heads, letting it hold them back… “What if I try online dating and nobody likes me? What if nobody writes back to my message? What if I ask my cute classmate out and she says no?” To paraphrase Tim, quit focusing on the potential negative outcomes, and start realizing that you may just meet the love of your life through one of those actions!

Don’t fret about past behavior or missed opportunities–Best to focus on what you can change and do going forward. Your past love experiences don’t actually have to mean anything regarding your future ones!

Don’t stay in a crappy relationship—If you wouldn’t start dating your partner if you met them tomorrow, then why are you still dating them now? If you’re vaguely dissatisfied, it might be time to examine whether you’re getting your wants and needs met.

What did you guys think? Anything in particular that either rubbed you the wrong way or inspired you? Would you be curious to hear other science-based approaches to online dating, say, biology or genetics or physics? (Not that I have the power to make that happen—but hey, any of us can email NPR.)

Most importantly, did any of this inspire you to approach your love life differently? [icon-heart]

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