Dating and Game Theory Overall Structure

Dating and Game Theory (or, why the worst that could happen is that she says “yes”)

I’ve been wanting to do a post about Dating and Game Theory for quite a while.  It all started when I was at church one day and the topic was dating and the lady speaking was trying to encourage the boys to ask the girls out more frequently.  She told us that asking isn’t scary, and asked us “what’s the worse that could happen?”  Partially to be funny, but secretly knowing that it is sometimes true, I shouted out that “she could say ‘yes!'”

An Example

So why might it be true that asking girls out may be a bad idea due to the risk that the girl says “yes?”  I turned to some frameworks used in game theory to help structure this out:

Multi-step framework for dating and game theory

What you see here is a sequential game decision tree.  It involves two decisions that the boy has to make, one decision that the girl has to make, and “payoffs” for each of them depending on the decisions made.  I will start by saying that actions will (or should) be based on the expected payoffs from each outcome. If the payoffs are accurate, and both players know the payoffs, you can predict with a reasonable amount of certainty what the players will do.  Let’s run through this step by step.

Boy Decision 1: To ask, or not to ask


Download all the movies memeNothing really happens in this game if the boy decides not to ask the girl out at all.  This leads us directly to our first possible outcome: the boy earns a negative one, and the girl a negative three.  Think of the numbers as “utility,” or just an overall level of happiness and satisfaction.

Since the boy didn’t ask the girl out, he’s stuck doing nothing on the weekend, or at least not doing anything as cool as going on a date with the girl.  The girl is even worse off because not only does she not get to do anything as cool as go on a date with Mr. Hunkalicious, but may start to get down on herself and over-evaluate why no one asked her out.

But say the boy mustered up some courage and asked the girl out.  Now, the girl has a choice to make.

Girl Decision 1: Pick your poison


If the boy asks the girl out, she has to make one of two choices, find a way to say “no,” or find a way to say “yes.”  If she says no, the game ends here, and both are left with their payoffs.

The girl also gets hit with a negative payoff, since presumably it isn’t fun to have to turn someone down (at least for the hypothetical girl we’re using in the example.)  Also, she may get a reputation of not accepting dates or being a jerk.  It’s possible that she had to say “no” because she had other things going on, so now she misses out on a date she wanted to go on, and runs the risk of the guy never asking her out again.  But, she still got asked and she feels good about it, so her payoff isn’t quite as low as it was originally.The boy lands himself a negative five.  Not only did he put some effort in to trying to ask the girl out, but he got shut down, wreaking havoc on his self-confidence and pride, and leaving him to feel even lamer as he spends his Friday night playing video games or watching sports.

Because the girl’s payoff is higher (albeit still negative) in this situation, the girl would prefer to be asked, but turn the date down, than to not get asked at all.  Unfortunately, if the boy knows that the outcome will be rejection, he will choose not to ask since he can see from the beginning that the negative one from not asking is preferable to the negative five from rejection.  If the boy knows the payoffs, the girl will be out of luck.

But the girl may also say yes, which will force the boy to make another decision.

Boy Decision 2: Giving a care


The boy has asked the lovely lady on a date, and she said “yes!”  How wonderful!  But now, the boy must make another decision: how much time to spend on planning and preparing the date.  To simplify things, I just made it a nice dichotomy where the boy either plans it completely, or not at all.

This action doesn’t force any new decisions on the players, but sends us down different tracks when we actually get to the big date.  Here, the payoffs will depend heavily on whether or not the boy put some effort into this night on the town.

The Date: Nerves, sweat, and probability


So the boy and girl go on their date, and to simplify things, I again created a dichotomy: either the date goes well, or the date goes poorly.  In reality, the “goodness” of the date will lie somewhere on a continuum.

Let’s look at the payoffs for if the boy decided not to plan the date.  If the date ends up being a good date, both leave with a payoff of 10.  Not only is this the first positive number in our game, it’s also dang high!  The boy is feeling good since he managed to succeed in taking a little risk, and had a good date with no further effort.  The girl is feeling good since she got asked out and ended up having a great time!

It’s also very possible that the date will go poorly.  If they have a bad date, the boy will end up with a payoff of negative 2 since he took the risk of asking, got a yes, and still couldn’t pull off a great evening out.  The girl lands a negative one since, although the night was lame, at least she was doing something and can maybe get a pity-party together later with lots of ice cream.

But what happens if the boy decides to give a care and plans the date?  If they have a good date, then the boy will land himself a positive 8.  Still awesome, but since he had to put in all that effort to plan the date, it was more costly overall and wont have quite as good a payoff as if the date went equally well, but with no preparation work.  The girl, however, is not affected by how much work the boy puts in to the date, and still lands her 10.

If the date goes poorly, the boy receives his lowest payoff of all, a negative 6.  Not only did he take the risk to ask the girl out and spend his precious time and money planning and preparing the date, it still tanked.  Not only that, the girl is going to take her negative one and tell her girlfriends about the lame date they went on and the boy has now lost the chance to ask out the girl or any of her friends again.  Ouch!

Looking at what we have right now, you could predict the outcome of the game.  You can see that it’s always in the girl’s favor to get asked, and say yes.  She will always receive a more positive outcome whether the date is good or bad if she goes on the date than if she turns it down.  We can also see that we shouldn’t expect the boy to ever plan the date.  His payoffs, whether the date goes well or poorly, are always higher if he shirks that duty.

The only caveat is that his payoff on a bad date is lower than if he just doesn’t ask, so the entire game rests on whether the boy thinks he will have a good date or not.  If he thinks the date will be good, he will ask, the girl will say yes, the boy wont plan it, and the date will run its course.  If he thinks the date will be bad, he’ll stick with his video games.

Probability: The fog of war in dating

Answer all the C'sLet’s dive a bit deeper into the good date/bad date outcomes and how planning affects it.  Obviously, if the boy plans the date, there’s a greater chance at the date being good.  I decided to make up some numbers for this too, and you can see on the chart the “.8” representing about an 80% chance that a planned date will go well.  Conversely, I arbitrarily decided that there’s probably a 10% chance of an unplanned date being a “good date.”

So perhaps the boy’s decision not to plan the date isn’t so clear cut after all.  I’m not 100% sure how to integrate the probability into the payoffs, but it seems like you should be able to consolidate the date payoffs by multiplying the probability of each outcome by its payoffs, sum each track together, and compare the results from there.  In other words, I think it might look like this:

Consolidated multi-step game theory framework for dating

Basically, this is just a weighted average of the payoffs. The probability of a planned date going well was .8.  I multiplied both payoffs (of 8 for the boy and 10 for the girl) by .8 to get 6.4 and 8 as the new payoffs.  I did the same with the probability of .2 for the poor planned date, and summed the payoffs of a planned date together to get a payoff for the boy of 5.2 and then 7.8 for the girl.  I did the same with the unplanned date, and got a -0.8 payoff for the boy and a 0.1 payoff for the girl.  Skipping the planning stage doesn’t look so rosy anymore, does it?

I don’t know how well the probability altered numbers compare with the rest of the payoffs either, but if they compare directly, out result still stands that the boy and girl will be happiest going on the date, but that the boy will decide to plan the date.

How to Deal with Made-up Numbers

Dilbert and made up numbers
From Dilbert

That was a fun conceptual exercise, but you probably spent the entire time either thinking “sure, but your numbers are completely made-up” or thinking “girls can ask boys out too!”  I will address both of these issues.  The second issue is simple.  Just switch the “B’s” with “G’s” and vice-versa and the decision tree works just as well.

The issue with the made-up numbers is a bit more tricky.  Fortunately, this opens up an opportunity to look into the drivers of the numbers, and come up with strategies at how to create the desired outcome (if you’re the entity being asked on dates, how to try to create a world where you get asked out more frequently, and if you’re an “asker,” how to make the world more conducive to asking.  Or, if you’re a third party, perhaps a parent wanting his or her son to get married and out of the house, how to come up with techniques besides setting him up with awkward daughters or siblings of your co-workers.)

Before we dive much deeper, I just want to clarify what this section will be doing: we are going to talk about how to essentially change the payoff numbers to create the favorable conditions we want.

Drivers of a “Good Date”

One potential strategy is to increase the potential benefits of dating.  In other words, do things to help guarantee a “good date.”  To do that, you need to know what makes a date “good.”  Everyone will have their own thoughts, but I came up with a few drivers that others may agree with:

A framework for how to have a good date

Let’s take these in turn.

Goodnight Kiss

Now, I don’t personally kiss on a date unless it’s a date with someone that I’m in a committed relationship with.  However, I know that others may judge the date based on the culminating act of trading saliva.  So, if an “askee” knows that the “asker” will base their judgment of whether a date was “bad” or “good” by if a kiss happens at the end, the “askee” may come up with ways to communicate to the “asker” that a kiss will be inevitable at the end of any dates they may go on.  This makes the probability of a “good date” a full 100% for the “asker,” making it fairly silly not to ask the “askee” out on a date.

Snow white gets a kiss on the hand from a prince
Of course we’re talking about
this sort of kiss 🙂

The kiss may also be used to make other things happen as well.  If the “askee” wants to go on a planned date instead of an unplanned date, the “askee” may indicate that all planned dates receive a kiss, but no unplanned dates get so lucky.  Now the “asker” has a simpler choice to make: a payoff of -2 if the date isn’t planned, or a payoff of 8 if it is.  That’s a pretty easy choice.



Excellent Conversation

Writing “asker” and “askee” is a bit annoying, so I’m going to assume Western tradition and consider the “asker” the boy and the “askee” the girl.

This is one of the things that I certainly use to judge the goodness of a date.  I mean, don’t most people find it awkward to go out with someone who gives 2 word answers to every question and does nothing to keep communication lines open?  As a result, I will never date a mime.

Tries to have a conversation, he only talks in memes meme

Anyways, if a girl wants to be asked on the date and show that the date will be good, then to someone that judges dates based on conversation the girl can demonstrate her ability to converse well outside of dates.  This can get more detailed and intricate as you dive deeper into what makes a conversation good, but it’s a safe bet that talking about what the boy is interested in and neither dominating nor withdrawing from the conversation will increase the incentive for the boy to ask the girl out.  The higher the perceived probability of some good conversation, the greater the payoffs for asking a girl on a date.

Initiates a Relationship

Another way someone may judge a date is whether it looks like it will lead to a relationship.  This is reflected when people say things like “the date was ok, but I would never marry him/her.”

I can think up some ways of trying to use this driver, but I don’ know how well I like them.  If the boy will clearly judge the date by whether it is likely going to lead to lasting happiness, then the obvious conclusion may be for the girl to talk about how much she wants to get married, communicating the fact that he won’t be on a chase after someone not interested in settling down.  I think that, in most cases, this would then cause other problems since obsessing about marriage tends to come-off as awkward.

I suppose that just finding ways to communicate seriousness and maturity in dating desires will increase the payoffs of asking.  Probably.  Perhaps you can be more creative than me in this section.

Involves Trying New Things

Do you like adventure?  Make sure your date knows it and you can increase the probability of having a good date.  This can go for any category of activity as well.  If you like to travel, make sure your date knows and maybe you can take a short road trip.  If you like physical activity, make sure your date knows it and maybe you can take a sweet bike ride or do a timed scavenger hunt.  Communicate desires, and your desires may be met.

Involves Expensive Things

Caviar on bread
Mmmm.  Caviar

If you know that you want high prices on a date, then you can increase your probability of having a good date by not dating college students, or by paying for it yourself.  I don’t really know what to say for this, but I’ve head of people being disappointed when a date wasn’t “classy” enough as defined by the sum total of the receipts, so I felt like I should include it.  Yup.

Lowering the cost

This blog post is already long, so I’m not going to dive too deep into this, but the idea is that it can also be useful to look at what is imposing costs on this situation and see if it’s possible to lower them.  Take the planning track for instance.  If people don’t plan because they don’t have time (or don’t even ask because they know they don’t have time to plan,) then interested parties can look into what drives the lack of time and try to influence the situation.  I made another diagram to help illustrate that idea:

Framework for taking time

You can logically see that if there are things that could be done to any of the drivers of having a lack of time, you could act on those drivers and try to free some time up.

What if She Says “Yes?”

So, just to make it clear on why the worst that could happen is that she could say “yes.”  If you ask a girl out, and you plan the date, and it goes poorly, then you would have been happier just not asking her out (assuming my made-up numbers reflect reality.)  So get out there and do what you need to do to alter the payoffs and make your world what you want it to be.

Keep seeking truth.


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National Debt, Explained by “Weird” Al and Humor U
Money as No Object
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  1. Jordan 4 November, 2014 at 15:43 Reply

    I’m sitting in my Economics of Strategy class now learning about game theory, and despite potential inferred sarcasm from my last comment, I must say, this logic really is spot on!

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