Game Theory, Dating & Sex

We've had so much interest in this topic that I've decided to write a three part post on game theory, dating and sex. Now you're probably wondering what on earth does game theory have to do with dating and sex? Good question! In fact, scientists and mathematicians have been studying mating from this perspective for the last 20 years. Game theory, to recap, is a type of applied mathematics that has been used extensively in evolutionary biology and economics. It attempts to fathom the great mystery of human behavior and the choices we make when the success or outcome of those choices depends on other people's choices. And nowhere are those choices more at risk and more reliant on others than in the convoluted dance of dating and sex.

For example, the mathematicians Peter Sozou and Robert Seymouri studied the value of gifts in the outcomes of dating. And their results are intriguing. Sozou got to thinking about the real value of gift-giving after he read about a woman who was sleeping around with different guys-- but whose rent was being paid by her so called "exclusive boyfriend." The idea germinated into a study that had as its thesis that costly but essentially valueless gifts, like expensive dinners or limo rides, facilitate courtship but gifts with real value, like paying the rent, giving jewelry, or cold hard cash may bring on unwelcome "gold diggers" like the woman in the newspaper.

In Souzou and Seymour's research game, men could choose to give three kinds of gifts: extravagant, valuable or cheap. The women, on the other hand, had to accept or turn down the gift and then choose whether to sleep with the guy. The study found that guys were able to avoid gold diggers and connect to women who were into them and eventually willing to have sex by offering extravagant yet valueless gifts most of the time with a valuable gift occasionally thrown in.

Lesson learned for guys: hold off on the big ticket items and you will find rewards. In Part II, we'll look at how women use other signals, in the area of male sexual behavior, to decide mating strategies and whether to sleep with a guy

From the "good" (ie, non-gold diggers) woman's perspective, theater tickets or fancy dinners are nice because they show true interest and weed out the less successful guys. These are signals that the man is "good" in terms of offering more potential to care for them and their young. But in the end, however, these "good" women still needed the guys to hang in there over time.

Lesson learned for the ladies: be alert to the kinds of gifts that he gives and whether he is willing to persist, even without sex. You can read Part II right now and learn how women use other signals to decide mating strategies and whether to sleep with the guy.

So gift-giving is a fascinating type of signal that both men and women can use to discriminate between "good" and "bad" partners. There's a lot more use for game theory in solving the mysteries of dating, sex and love. For example, evolutionary biologistsii talk about a "handicap principle " that asserts that "superior" males produced courtship signals that "inferior" males can't compete with. And it's those signals that females use to help them discriminate between prospects.

iResearchers at the University College London and The London School of Economics

iiZahavi, A. 1975. Mate selection-a selection for handicap. J. Theor. Biol. 53, 205-214.

Diana Kirschner Ph.D.'s bestselling dating advice book, Love in 90 Days, is the basis for her PBS Special on love. It's just out in paperback with a new chapter on Dating Games Men Play. Dr. Diana is a frequent guest psychologist on The Today Show. Connect with Dr. Diana and get her free Relationship Advice E-Course at Dating Advice TV.

About the Author

Diana Kirschner, Ph.D.

Diana Kirschner, Ph.D., a psychologist and frequent guest expert on The Today Show, is the author of the bestselling book Love in 90 Days: The Essential Guide to Finding Your Own True Love.

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