Friday, October 06, 2006

The Mating Auction

Tyler asks, “Would any of you like to ponder the difference between a Dutch and an English auction, and how it applies to dating strategy?”

Sure, I’ll go there. For those who don’t know, an English auction is the familiar variety in which the price starts at some reservation level (the lowest the seller would accept) and then rises with the bidding. A Dutch auction starts with a very high price, higher than anyone would willingly pay, and then gradually drops the price until someone takes it. In an English auction, many bids are heard; in the Dutch auction, only one.

In the dating context, someone running an English auction would trade-up whenever a better mate came along, and he would finally settle down when no better offers were forthcoming. Someone running a Dutch auction would start with really high standards, keep lowering those standards until someone agreed to date him, and settle down with that person.

If there were perfect information, the two auctions would yield the same qualitative result (though see qualification below). But in reality, dating is a learning process; we don’t initially know what we want, nor do we know how many and what quality of people would want to date us. There is also a valuable experience to be gained by dating around. These reasons strongly favor the English auction, which reveals information in the bidding process.

The Dutch auction can do better than the English auction in one regard: in the context of imperfect information, it can produce a higher surplus (difference between value gained and value sacrificed) for the seller. In the English auction, the highest bidder will offer a price just barely above the potential buyer who places the next highest value on the object. The same would be true in the Dutch auction, except the would-be highest bidder doesn’t know the valuation of the second-highest bidder. If she did, she would just wait to jump in until the price was a tiny bit above that price. But lacking information, she might bid somewhat earlier just to be sure she’s the buyer.

In the dating context, the Dutch-auction advantage might take the form of a better “deal” within the relationship – more concessions with regard to housework, preferred dates, etc. However, this strikes me as rather unlikely in a competitive dating market. The Dutch auction’s advantage occurs primarily with unique items, where the would-be high bidder can’t just go buy somewhere else. Yeah, sure, I know you think you're really unique, but if you face competition from other possible mates, you probably can’t sustain the surplus created by a lopsided arrangement within the relationship. Don’t forget, this is a bilateral auction.

But I still think search theory is the more fruitful branch of economics for analyzing mating strategies. Among other things, it addresses how to calculate your reservation level if you're the seller in the English auction.

1 comment:

Jeff Brown said...

Bilateral auction?