A treatise on dating: the Prisoner’s Dilemma

By Joshua Steinman

After reading V.R. Dupont’s hilariously honest contribution on Tuesday (“The Economics of Meat Markets: Addressing the Question of Efficiency”), I felt compelled to stand up for the social sciences (in particular, international relations) and share with you a portion of a theory I’ve been working on.

At moderately large schools like Chicago where social interactions (read: attempts to get digits) rarely happen repeatedly between two people, there is a disproportionate incentive for all individuals involved to show disinterest toward each other, regardless of the reality.

“Wait, really?” you ask. “So that girl in my Hum class who was blowing me off at Bar Night might actually be interested?” Rein in the stallions, Casanova. In reality, it was probably the Bartlett breath that turned her off. But you’ve read this far, so I owe you an explanation.

This theory is based on the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” The theory scenario consists of two “players” of a simple game where the goal is to acquire points. There are two options: truth or deception. If both choose truth, both experience a point gain. If both choose deception, there is no gain. But if one chooses truth and the other deception, the player who chose deception will gain, and the one who chose truth will remain at status quo (and will experience a relative loss).

We (students) are the players, because even though you crush on that girl in Hum every day, as far as romantic overtures are concerned, you two are strangers. And the “points” are actually a rough estimation of each player’s exclusivity.

Exclusivity works as a reward system because girls brag to each other about how many guys hit on them at the last ultimate frisbee party, and guys brag about how many drunken girls they turned down at the last Psi U bash. Similarly, girls communicate when they fail in attracting a guy, and guys do the same. In each situation, the players use communication to establish exclusivity, thus increasing their own desirability or communicating failure.

When both parties express interest, the mutual gain is the exchange of contact information (or perhaps a quick make-out session behind University Church). When neither party shows interest, the result is status quo. When one player attempts to get the other’s digits and is rebuffed, the player who “turned down” the other experiences a gain in exclusivity.

Let us apply this concept now to your typical, possible male-female interaction at a random College Programming Office event.

Side note: typical U of C students will claim they “pre-gamed” in order to lower expectations of exclusivity, when in fact they are stone-cold sober, since they want to read Heidegger for pleasure on the third floor of the Reg after the event is over.

So you’re standing there, munching on a mini-croissant with a cup of tea, when all of a sudden you spot that cutie that you haven’t seen since O-Week. You’re gazing, when all of a sudden, she catches your glance, and lo! smiles back at you. Let’s look at the possibilities for interaction through the lens of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

For both parties, there are two options (assuming both are interested)—deception or truth. Since neither can know if the other is definitely interested, interaction has the following result matrix: “Truth” on the part of one player and “deception” on the part of the other player will lead to heightened exclusivity for the second player, who will return to his/her peer group and brag about the failed attempt by the other party, thus increasing their exclusivity. Truth from both parties will lead to a positive interaction, such as getting his/her number. Deception will yield the status quo.

A truth-teller (assuming they are interested) will experience a gain one-third of the time, status quo one-third of the time, and a loss of exclusivity one-third of the time, whereas deception will yield a gain in exclusivity one-third of the time and status quo two-thirds of the time. Thus, there are risks only when either player makes the decision to interact truthfully.

The benefits and detriments are heightened when one party is not interested. Denial of interest in this situation yields positive ancillary benefits (“that drunk loser just tried to hit on me! Ewww!” or “What a ho”), similarly increasing perceived exclusivity.

The benefits resulting from the denial of interest are the only constant benefits that can occur in the male-female interaction scenario. Just like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in a situation where you’re not dealing with certain individuals on a regular basis (which would allow for them to develop a relationship wherein there will be external repercussions for deceptive behavior), and where your reputation among the opposite sex is determined by exclusivity, the only constant action that consistently yields either status quo or a positive benefit is the denial of interest.

So, what should you do next time? The answer is simple: nothing! I call this tactic “pre-emptive protection of exclusivity.” Personally, I use my predictive abilities (I’m honing them for a career in law) and realize that I’ll likely be shot down. And that she’ll probably brag to her friends about how “the columnist” tried to hit on her. So I do nothing. This is my way of really sticking it to girls whom I think aren’t interested in me.

Unfortunately I can’t really complete the comparison, because in international relations, there’s no corollary event to walking home alone.

But if the outlook seems bleak (and believe me, it does), check back next quarter, when I extend the theory and find a solution to what I’m calling “The Dating Dilemma.”