Mark Gimein writes about The Eligible-Bachelor Paradox. It’s essentially the female equivalent to The Woman Shortage. Both of which are often nooks and crannies that our psyches hide behind in explaining Why I Can’t Find Someone That Seems To Meet My Entirely Reasonable Standards. Gimein attempts to explain this using Game Theory (as in the real kind, not the Neil Straussian version we more typically talk about):
You can think of this traditional concept of the search for marriage partners as a kind of an auction. In this auction, some women will be more confident of their prospects, others less so. In game-theory terms, you would call the first group “strong bidders” and the second “weak bidders.” Your first thought might be that the “strong bidders”—women who (whether because of looks, social ability, or any other reason) are conventionally deemed more of a catch—would consistently win this kind of auction.
But this is not true. In fact, game theory predicts, and empirical studies of auctions bear out, that auctions will often be won by “weak” bidders, who know that they can be outbid and so bid more aggressively, while the “strong” bidders will hold out for a really great deal. You can find a technical discussion of this here. (Be warned: “Bidding Behavior in Asymmetric Auctions” is not for everyone, and I certainly won’t claim to have a handle on all the math.) But you can also 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.
Susan Walsh interprets it through the prism of what she calls The Carol Syndrome:
The Eligible Bachelor Paradox dovetails nicely with another game theory concept that’s been applied to dating – dubbed The Carol Syndrome, named for the author’s beautiful friend Carol. Carol doesn’t get asked out much, and she believes that she frightens men away, but she doesn’t understand why. Surely some men are willing to approach her! It turns out that game theory can explain, at least theoretically why no men do.
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.
Phi relates thusly:
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.
My college tech classes were, unsurprisingly, dominated by men. Those women that were somewhat disproportionately likely to be second-career types or foreign. Out of nowhere in one class was a gorgeous blond bombshell* of appropriate age. One of the amazing things was that nobody - and I mean nobody - talked to her. At all. Women who were foreign, fat, or wore shorts with unshaved legs, got more attention. Maybe not of the romantic kind (I really don’t know), but none were so avoided and (if only for their novelty) tended to attract more attention. But you would have thought that this girl had a stink-bomb in her pocket by the way that she was treated. By (young, available, attracted-as-hell) me, included. By the end of the class, her only friend was an Asian guy who barely spoke English.
I’ve heard some attractive women say that they actually get more attention when they dress down than when they dress up. I have a friend that made an absolute science out of finding flaws with women (”If you look at her closely, her eyes are slightly too close together and the eyebrow waxing is slightly asymmetrical.”) because such things were necessary for him to believe that he had any sort of chance. The term we used was “attainably attractive,” which was something of a joke because they were not remotely attainable by the likes of us. But it gave us just enough wiggle room to think it might be so. Not enough to ever really follow up. It also brings to mind some of the complaints of Sheila. Less so for any physical shortcoming on her part, but rather a vulnerability due to class and social standing that gave guys that had no shot the illusion that they did. All of this is to say that guys very frequently look for a reason for their to be an opening. Even if it’s illusory, some will go for it. But if they can’t even get that, cause they’re looking at all the other guys eyeing her at Starbucks, they may well be more likely to move on.
So what about the weak/strong bidder distinction? Do some women succeed by putting themselves out there? Some guys argue that this is the case, that women should be more forward. Others (guys and girls) say the opposite. If they do the legwork, the guy will just use her for sex and toss her aside. I know that in the past I have said that the guy should at least be willing to meet you half way. If there is any truth to this article, that may not be the case. And I can think of a few anecdotes to where someone that ordinarily would not have been on my radar getting there through some rather aggressive bidding.
I remember Maya, my friend Kyle’s former roommate. They’d recently moved in together (platonically) and I was in town visiting him. She was kind of chubby and not remarkably impressive. But boy, she could talk. And she talked to me all night long. In a way, I was grateful because we went to a party and it saved me from having to meet anyone knew. But she told me nearly everything about herself and asked question after question after question about me. At one point (I think I was in a sour mood more generally, that night) I wanted to ask “What’s wrong with you?!” do to all of the attention she was giving me. Whether she was actually interested in me I do not know, but trickle-trickle it came out that what she was looking for in a guy (tall, thickly built, young**, intelligent) were attributes I had. Anyway, though part of me found it obnoxious at the time (in part because I think I was in a sour mood, in part because I just didn’t know what to do with this person that would not leave my side), by the next day I was really wanting to talk to her some more. A week later, I was kind of in to her. The next time I saw her, there was no “kind of” about it. Long and uninteresting story about what followed, but nothing ever came of it.
Then there was the Story of Libby. That one did not have a happy ending. At all. But her force of will made it so that if there was any chance of it working out, it probably would have. She didn’t get the marriage that she perhaps wanted, but she made something out of what - for lack of that will - would never have been anything. She’s not alone in this regard. I’ve largely attributed it to an attraction to strong-minded (or, absent that, outgoing) women, but maybe there is something more to it. Not that aggressive bidding will get them what they want, but that maybe I’ve historically been to skeptical of the possibility that it can get them something that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten?
Some of this rests, though, on the notion of a Quality Man Shortage. Which I do think exists in some contexts (such as the third quartile of functionality), but I really think is more often fueled by the same thing that fuels men to carp about The Woman Shortage. But the strong/weak bidder concept is interesting. It also makes me wonder to what extent there is a strong-weak bidder in the other direction. The general view is that persistence isn’t worth much of anything, as a guy. My experience backs this up 100%. So if there is a difference, why? Is it because men are not socialized/trained to tell women to buzz off when they are not interested, thus providing women more leeway? Are men less put off by the sense of desperation?
* - I mentioned her to a friend of mine. He, like all good friends, said “Go for it!” He asked to see a picture, which I could provide because the class involved making a website. Upon seeing the picture, he suggested that perhaps I ought to move to California and try to land an actress, instead, as that was more likely to happen.
** - Younger than her, to be precise. I was older than her, but she was shocked to find that out. So during the night in question, she thought I was younger.