April 9, 2004

Frats solve the dating Prisoner's Dilemma

Last column I detailed how there are greater incentives for players in the singles game between men and women to show or feign disinterest when it comes to their feelings about one another, based on the Prisoner's Dilemma. What's the solution to the "Dating Dilemma"? The answer is simple: create a system of repeat players in the game.

The Prisoner's Dilemma is flipped nearly on its head when "repeat players" are introduced into the game. Since usually there are no repeat players (when you get shot down, do you go back five minutes later?), this phenomenon is rare in the singles world. Repeat players produce a shift in outcomes because of the first rule of the Prisoner's Dilemma: that both parties want to gain, and that if both parties are "truthful" they both will gain, however, if both parties are "deceptive" then both remain at status quo.

Once you have repeat interactions with a singles player, a pattern can develop between the two. If you're deceptive once, you can expect the other player to change their behavior to deception immediately thereafter, thus preventing you from experiencing any more gains. Similarly, if you change your behavior to "truthfulness" you can expect the other player to do the same, since that is the only set of actions that will produce robust, long-term gains for both players (were the other player to choose deception, you too would revert to deception, and blunt any gains that would have been possible). This simple principle is why democracies, which have continuity provided by a constitution, elections, and free presses, are less likely to go to war, and more likely to establish consistent trade relations. Since they are always repeat players (there are no military overthrows and their decision making process is relatively open), past behavior is a predictor for future action.

The question we must ask now is "how do we create repeat players for single people?" Interestingly, the only way to do this at the collegiate level is to go Greek. Similar to the way in which democracy creates a transparent system that allows other democracies to know the other's intentions and experience gains, joining a fraternity or sorority and then only going after men or women from other Greek organizations creates incentives that overwhelm the incentive to deceive in the non-Greek world.

Whereas in the non-Greek world there are no repeat players, in the Greek world, the phenomena of "repeat players" is caused by membership. Behavior of one member of a fraternity reflects on all members. Thus, unacceptable behavior among members of a fraternity with a certain image is frowned upon. This creates incentives to act responsibly, or at least uphold certain values of the group.

Individuals who are Greek are accountable not only for their personal reputation, but also for the reputation of their respective fraternity or sorority. And this reputation is established by behavior of individuals in the group. Interactions between fraternity and sorority members are usually known to all of the other members of the respective Greek organizations. Any negative experience (deception, cheating, even poor manners) is quickly disseminated among the members.

Fraternity and sorority membership, as compared to many friendships, is consistent. Either you are a member or you are not. There are no grey areas. Membership is constant and bound by pledges of loyalty to the other members. Those who leave lose the identity of the group and cannot gain it back. This makes the Greek organization an institution apart from others, and it can therefore be applied to the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Since Greek organizations serve as information clearinghouses on members of the opposite sex, many, if not all, of the other members of that specific organization know that one party is interested in the other, or vice versa. This eliminates the incentive to be deceptive to the individual of interest—since he or she may have already heard of the interest, and has time to digest the information and think about whether they want to reciprocate. This is the kind of transparency seen on the international scale. Suddenly, when interest is known, with the incentive for predictable behavior, the players in the game have less of a need to be deceptive.

The effects of this phenomenon are clearly noticeable. As a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi (the Jewish Fraternity), I can personally attest. When Greeks go out with other Greeks, the news spreads fast. Even faster is pressure to start a relationship, or at least not ignore the other person. And once two Greeks start dating, there is pressure from both sides to continue the relationship. This is because there are benefits experienced on both sides: once two Greeks begin dating it is easy to set up other members of their fraternities and sororities. Also, members of those two organizations (whose members are dating) tend to show up at events being held by one Greek organization or the other, thus increasing exposure between the two membership bases.

What's the moral of the story? Honestly, there isn't one. Join a fraternity or don't. Chicago doesn't have a very large Greek scene (there are 3 sororities and 10 fraternities), but there are options out there. And while this may seem like a stunt to drive up the roles of my own fraternity, it is in fact simply a description of the system as I observe it. (For the sake of full disclosure, I am the rush chair of my fraternity.) I'm just calling it like it is. Whether you insult or praise Greek life is your prerogative, but one thing you cannot do is say that it serves no function. It is, in fact, a very complex system with its own mores, traditions, and, as I have tried to demonstrate above, benefits.