Why Dating Might Be A Game, But It's Not A Zero-Sum Game


I penned this article as a direct response to the recent, “Zero-Sum Game: Women Guard Sex, Men Guard Commitment, No One Wins” by Lauren Martin.

Ms. Martin recently wrote about dating from an interesting viewpoint: It is a zero-sum game, a give-or-take relationship, in which someone always loses. And, it would seem that women always lose because men have a lot from which to choose when in the dating scenario. Well, I beg to differ.

My feminist self would like to speak of equality, but I would be a dreamer to believe such equality exists. So, my economist self would like to bring logic to the rescue in the case of women and reality.

A zero-sum game is one where, if you and I are two players, any individual who loses or gains would be equivalent so that if we sum up our payoffs, the net result would be zero. Now suppose, in a very realistic sense, that we date many people throughout our lives and there was an equal probability of winning and losing.

In such a situation, where we can assume to date an indefinite number of people, our expected gains and losses would sum up to zero. If this is true, why would we date anyone in the first place? In this case, shouldn't we be simply indifferent to dating, given that the payoff (zero) is equivalent to when we were not dating?

Incidentally, we would not just be indifferent, but rather, against dating. Why? Because although we may win and lose the same amount, the losses hurt more than the gains. That’s classic prospect theory for you. Getting a chocolate may make you happy, but losing a chocolate would make you really, really sad (assuming you like chocolates).

So, in a dating-game situation, where we have equal probabilities of winning and losing, the potential losses hurt me more than the potential gains. My probabilistic emotional state, then, looks negative, so I would never play such a game.

There is one case, however, when you would want to date: when you expect your personal probability of winning to be more than 50 percent.

Similarly, the other person would also only date when he or she expects a higher probability of winning than 50 percent. People would, therefore, self-select and date only if they think there's a stronger than 50 percent chance of relationship success.

The exception is people who consistently play with weak opponents, this not being a judgment on the people themselves, but on their expertise in the game being played.

The zero-sum game -- we are aware -- has negative long-run payoffs and there is no incentive to play. (Of course, the payoffs are negative on an average emotional level, so if you don’t care about the emotional aspect, you might not even consider dating).

But, people do date and play this game — are they all illogical? There are two ways to answer this: Firstly, people start with a bias about themselves having a higher probability of winning.

After an extent of experience (the length and depth required depends on the person), the people would realize that playing a zero-sum dating game is not worthwhile.

The assumptions on which this game is based do not cover the entire scope of events. Yes, dating may be a zero-sum game; love, however, is not. For two people in love, their jointly maximized utility would be higher than the sum of their individual utilities from when they were alone.

So, if a happy me falls in love with a happy you, we would each be individually super happy. This is definitely not a zero-sum game. Rather, it is a rare situation where everybody gains. In such a situation, dating makes sense.

If we rule out love, there is one more crucial aspect we must factor in: Why do we view men as sexually-driven beings and women as the emotional ones? The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. Yes, one could say that women seek commitment; it is purely instinct for women to seek a mate for her children.

A guy who cannot commit is a guy who cannot give security to a woman’s future children. There is nothing fiercer than a mother’s love, not even a lover's love.

It should be no shock if a female seeks commitment from the breadwinner of the family, which is traditionally male. But, we forget an important part of the argument: Men, too, are naturally designed to look out for women whom they want to mother their children.

With the shifting roles and these pervasive needs, the solution for women is simple: You have the potential to simultaneously be breadwinners and caretakers. Men shouldn’t be chosen out of necessity, but rather, out of choice. Able men should value you.

It is time to stop playing the victimized role. Be an empowered, independent woman, and the game, lady, is yours.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It