Joey: Alright Michael, first thing we gotta do, is pick out some good prospects. Now, you’re gonna want to play the numbers.This post wasn’t inspired by anything here at the seminar – though it easily could have been, given the number of hook-ups that happen at these things. Indeed, co-blogger Tom W. Bell met his belle at an IHS conference.
Michael: What do you mean?
Joey: Well, it’s important to choose someone at the same level of hotness as yourself. You could go two points either way, but I wouldn’t do much more than that. For example, I’m a 9, okay? So, I can hit on a 7, or a hypothetical 11.
– from the pilot of Joey
In the sit-com snippet above, Joey Tribiani nicely captures the conventional wisdom on mating, which Gary Becker has formalized as the Optimal Matching (OM) rule.* Like matches like; high-quality men end up with high-quality women, low-quality men with low-quality women. Of course, there’s some question as to what characteristics create quality (the cynical assumption being sex appeal and wealth for men and women respectively). And since quality is a subjective matter, there’s some wiggle room. Still, insofar as people tend to assess quality similarly, the matching rule is often a fairly accurate predictor.
If searching for a mate were costless, we’d expect perfect matching – everyone would pair up with someone of the exact same quality level. But since search is costly, people will instead target an acceptable range of quality. So Joey’s +/– 2 model even accounts for friction in mating markets!
Now, here’s the question I’ve been toying with: Is it harder for people in the tails of the quality distribution to find suitable mates? My initial guess was yes, because there are just fewer equivalent-quality mates out there. It’s a lot easier to find someone of average quality than to find someone of especially high or especially low quality. Joey will have a harder time finding a 9+/– than Michael will have finding a 6+/–. Since the search cost for people in the tails of the distribution is higher, it follows that high- and low-quality people should also have wider target ranges.
But thinking more carefully, I realized the answer might be no. Why? Because there is less effective competition. Joey will seek women with quality of 9+/–. On the one hand, female 9’s are rare. On the other hand, those female 9’s will be seeking male 9’s, who are also rare. So Joey will have fewer acceptable prospects, but also fewer viable competitors. Thus, we have offsetting effects – a frequency effect and a competition effect. Which effect predominates? I’m not sure. They could easily cancel out, because the ratio of seekers to prospects should be the same anywhere on the bell curve.
But there’s another possibility. OM relies on the simplifying assumption of a universal scale of quality. But suppose that, while individuals care mainly about the same characteristics everyone else does, they care secondarily about idiosyncratic things. As a result, finding someone in one’s acceptable target range is not sufficient for a good match – it’s merely the first hurdle. The existence of this hurdle means the OM rule will still provide a fairly good description of how people match up. But each person will also try to find those potential mates within their target range who best satisfy their idiosyncratic preferences.
If this model is right, then I return to my first answer to the original question: yes, it is more difficult for people in the tails of the quality distribution to find suitable mates. While the frequency and competition effects most likely cancel out, it’s still true that the absolute number of potential mates in one’s range is smaller for the especially high- or low-quality person. As a result, the likelihood that any of them will fit one’s idiosyncratic preferences is smaller as well.
* If anyone knows a good online source on Becker’s Optimal Matching rule, please put it in the comments.