[Question] Why are people so bad at dating?

I’m con­fused why peo­ple are so bad at dat­ing. It seems to me like there are tons of $20 bills ly­ing on the ground which no one picks up.

For ex­am­ple, we know that peo­ple sys­tem­at­i­cally choose unattrac­tive images for their dat­ing pro­files. Sites like Pho­toFeeler cheaply (in some cases, freely) re­solve this prob­lem. Since photo qual­ity is one of the strongest pre­dic­tors of num­ber of matches, you would think peo­ple would be clamor­ing to use these sites. And yet, not many peo­ple use them.

In the off-line dat­ing world, it sur­prises me how few self-help books are about dat­ing. Right now, zero of the top 10 Ama­zon best-sel­l­ing self-help books are about dat­ing. I see only two dat­ing books in the top 50: The 5 Love Lan­guages and Su­per At­trac­tor. To the ex­tent these books ex­ist, they of­ten have lit­tle to no em­piri­cal sup­port; my guess is that horo­scopes are the most fre­quently read source of dat­ing ad­vice. Ev­i­dence-based books like Mate are less widely read.

Pos­si­ble Solu­tion #1: Inad­e­quate Equilibria

It might be that we are in an Inad­e­quate Equil­ibrium. Eliezer pro­poses three gen­eral ways in which seem­ing in­effi­cien­cies can ex­ist:

1. Cases where the de­ci­sion lies in the hands of peo­ple who would gain lit­tle per­son­ally, or lose out per­son­ally, if they did what was nec­es­sary to help some­one else;

This doesn’t seem very com­pel­ling in the case of on­line dat­ing. Any­one could choose to use Pho­toFeeler for them­selves, for ex­am­ple.

2. Cases where de­ci­sion-mak­ers can’t re­li­ably learn the in­for­ma­tion they need to make de­ci­sions, even though some­one else has that information

Again, this isn’t com­pel­ling. Pho­toFeeler clearly lets you know what other peo­ple think of your pho­tos.

3. Sys­tems that are bro­ken in mul­ti­ple places so that no one ac­tor can make them bet­ter, even though, in prin­ci­ple, some mag­i­cally co­or­di­nated ac­tion could move to a new sta­ble state.

Re­gres­sions done by Hitsch et al., as well as com­mon sense, in­di­cate that im­prov­ing your own pho­tos, even if you do noth­ing else or noth­ing else changes about the world, does make a sig­nifi­cant im­pact in your like­li­hood of find­ing a good part­ner. So again, this seems un­com­pel­ling.

Pos­si­ble Solu­tion #2: Free Energy

I’ve seen a num­ber of novice ra­tio­nal­ists com­mit­ting what I shall term the Free En­ergy Fal­lacy, which is some­thing along the lines of, “This sys­tem’s pur­pose is sup­posed to be to cook omelettes, and yet it pro­duces ter­rible omelettes. So why don’t I use my amaz­ing skills to cook some bet­ter omelettes and take over?”
And gen­er­ally the an­swer is that maybe the sys­tem from your per­spec­tive is bro­ken, but ev­ery­one within the sys­tem is in­tensely com­pet­ing along other di­men­sions and you can’t keep up with that com­pe­ti­tion. They’re all chas­ing what­ever things peo­ple in that sys­tem ac­tu­ally pur­sue—in­stead of the lost pur­poses they wist­fully re­mem­ber, but don’t have a chance to pur­sue be­cause it would be ca­reer suicide. You won’t be­come com­pet­i­tive along those di­men­sions just by cook­ing bet­ter omelettes. – An Equil­ibrium of No Free Energy

It’s pos­si­ble that peo­ple don’t ac­tu­ally want to find good mates. Maybe they just want to seem as though they are try­ing to find good mates, or some­thing. This would be con­sis­tent with dat­ing ad­vice be­ing so ev­i­dence-free: peo­ple re­ally want to sig­nal that they care about find­ing good mate (which they can do by leav­ing a copy of Cosmo con­spicu­ously out on their coffee table), but don’t ac­tu­ally care about find­ing a good mate (so they don’t care if Cosmo ac­tu­ally has good ad­vice).

I’m pretty skep­ti­cal of this. If I was forced to guess only one thing that hu­mans ac­tu­ally, re­ally, re­ally re­ally re­ally, val­ued as a ter­mi­nal goal, “find a good mate” would be pretty high on my list of guesses. It’s the thing we have mil­lions of years of evolu­tion­ary pres­sure to­wards pri­ori­tiz­ing. I might even go so far as to sug­gest that all the other mar­kets which are effi­cient are effi­cient largely be­cause of peo­ple’s de­sire for ro­man­tic suc­cess: quants find ar­bi­trage op­por­tu­ni­ties in the stock mar­ket be­cause they hope that this fi­nan­cial suc­cess will trans­late into ro­man­tic suc­cess, etc.

So why is it that peo­ple – in­clud­ing peo­ple who de­vote their lives to find­ing ar­bi­trage op­por­tu­ni­ties – leave so many metaphor­i­cal $20 bills on the ground when they start dat­ing?

I re­main con­fused.