Let’s say that Carol is sitting in Starbucks. Cute Guy sees her and feels attraction – he would love to get her number. He figures there are three potential outcomes, listed in order of preference:
1. Approach Carol and get her number. Win!
2. Forget it and go back to texting. Meh.
3. Approach Carol and get rejected. Loser!
While Cute Guy is deciding what to do, he notices other guys in Starbucks, several of whom also have noticed Carol and are also stealing glances at her. He is a STEM guy, so he calculates his odds of success with each approach. Obviously, his chance of success with option 2 is zero. Option 1 is much more likely if he’s the only guy who approaches Carol, and Option 3 is probable if several guys approach Carol. He’d really rather not deal with the rejection. But she is gorgeous! How to know what other guys will do?
Game theory says that the better looking Carol is, the more guys will want to approach her, and the more likely that any one of them will be rejected. Since all the guys act independently, the odds are highest that each of them will conclude that it is not a good idea to approach Carol. The more admiring men there are in Starbucks, the lower Carol’s chances of getting approached at all. (Math nerds can find the equation here.)
The article concludes:
“Carol’s perception that she scares men away is not a delusion after all. According to the mathematics above, she may be justified in thinking that guys stay away from her. It is not a matter of bad luck but a collateral effect of interactive rationality. A paradoxical consequence is that Carol’s attractiveness acts as a repellent. This surprising phenomenon — which we call the Carol syndrome —is a by-product of psychological social interaction.”
Men like to say that beautiful women get hit on 50 times a day, but it simply isn’t true. They’re much more likely to go through their day having awkward interactions with tongue-tied men who won’t look them in the eye. Very few men have the cajones to approach a 10 and hit on her – and most 10s are not likely to jump at the chance to stroke the ego of a player. In this sociosexual climate, there are fewer men who feel confident approaching, period.
If this analysis is true, it supports my favorite hypothesis about why pleasantness of personality is overrepresented among both the low and high ends of the attractiveness spectrum: that neither group is much bothered by excessive male pestering, in the latter case because the cost of failure times its probability is prohibitive for the majority of men.
But Ms. Walsh also writes something unexpected:
Mark Gimein wrote The Eligible Bachelor Paradox, exploring how game theory might explain why dinner parties among 30-somethings always seem to have a shortage of available, appealing men:
. . .
The problem of the eligible bachelor is one of the great riddles of social life. Shouldn’t there be about as many highly eligible and appealing men as there are attractive, eligible women?
Gimein says no, and offers an explanation via game theory. In any auction, there will be “strong bidders” and “weak bidders.” Strong bidders are very confident of their ability to win the auction. However, weak bidders understand they can be outbid and often bid more aggressively, while the strong bidders hold out for a great deal. Empirical studies of auctions show that weak bidders often win. In dating, a strong bidder is a woman who feels very confident of her ability to attract men, while a weak bidder knows that she is less attractive and faces stiff competition.
You can see how this works intuitively if you just consider that with a lot at stake in getting it right in one shot, it’s the women who are confident that they are holding a strong hand who are likely to hold out and wait for the perfect prospect.
It’s all about the checklist! Meanwhile, women holding a weaker hand make moves.
Where have all the most appealing men gone? Married young, most of them—and sometimes to women whose most salient characteristic was not their beauty, or passion, or intellect, but their decisiveness.
Why is this noteworthy?
As an interesting aside, this calls into question the constant refrain that women who are less attractive than their hookups can get them for sex but not for commitment. That makes sense intuitively, but it appears that down the road, at least some men marry the women who bid aggressively. Some of those men may not be worth winning, but some of them are bound to be. In fact, men who are attractive but not socially dominant in their sphere may be quickest to jump at the chance to secure a woman – even if she is not as attractive as he is. The weak bidders are snatching up the good men.
Come to think of it, I have known men, all of whom were Christians (i.e., "marriage minded"), who married girls that struck me as . . . meh, not as attractive as I would have expected. In one case, I knew (of) his previous girlfriends, and knew that he had dated a lot better than he married. I never really considered that I could generalize from their experiences.