Tuesday, May 01, 2007

More Breaking News

It’s May 1st. That means the Annual Rite of Overdue Dumping is behind us, and the Spring Mating Season is well underway.

What explains these macro patterns in mating choices? I’ve argued before that the Overdue Dumping season follows from many people’s desire not to be alone during the holidays. But I think there’s also something more subtle going on.

One of the leading factors that contributes to the dumping decision is the dumper’s beliefs about outside prospects. The better those outside prospects look, the more likely she is to dump.

To take an extreme example, imagine you live in a society of 100 people, with equal numbers of men and women (all heterosexual). And suppose they are paired off into 50 couples. If you're thinking of dropping your current mate, you should recognize that your prospects for finding a new mate are rather dim (at least in the short term) because there are no degrees of freedom. Everyone except your ex is taken, so you’ll have to wait until at least one other couple breaks up. As a result, you might choose to stick it out a while longer in the current relationship. On the other hand, what if you knew that 20 other couples were about to break up? In that case, your prospects would be much better, and you might go through with the dumping.

This hypothetical is obviously extreme, because in reality there’s always a pool of single people out there, and there’s always some flow of people into (and out of) that pool. But the pattern is what’s important: the larger is the pool of potential mates, the greater is your incentive to wade in. Meanwhile, other people are performing the same calculus. The result is a kind of coordination game. To put it simply, you only want to break up if other couples are breaking up, and they only want to break up if you’re breaking up. In this sort of game, there will typically be more than one stable equilibrium. We can imagine low-break-up equilibria (relatively small numbers of couples are breaking up and rejoining the singles pool) as well as high-break-up equilibria (relatively large numbers of couples are breaking up and rejoining the singles pool).

I surmise, then, that the Spring Mating Season results from a seasonal high-break-up equilibrium. It starts with the Rite of Overdue Dumping, in which people exit relationships that they stayed in just for the holidays. And then there’s a cascade effect: the knowledge that more people are entering the singles pool encourages yet more people to exit their relationships, thus adding yet more people to the pool, etc. More dumpings take place than would be predicted by the post-holiday effect alone.

Autumn, on the other hand, represents a low-break-up equilibrium. Some people extend their relationships in order to be guaranteed a partner during the holidays. Others, who might have been willing to break up despite the holidays, realize that their prospects are worse because of the reduced flow into the singles pool – and so they decide to stick it out as well. And so on. More relationship-extensions take place than would be predicted by the pre-holiday effect alone.

In short, the cycle is driven by the pre-holiday and post-holiday effects, but the cycle is exaggerated – with higher peaks and deeper troughs – by the fact that people’s break-up decisions are interdependent. It makes most sense to break up and reenter the singles market when other people are doing the same.


jsanchez said...

Isn't the rather more intuitive explanation that the weather is warmer, which means:
(1) People are wearing skimpier clothing, causing other people to spend more time thinking about how good they might look in no clothing, and
(2) People are going out more because it's not freezing and horrible, where they have more opportunities to meet new people or get to know existing acquaintances better?

Glen Whitman said...

I sometimes need to be reminded that some people have the misfortunate to live somewhere besides southern California, where good weather and skimpy clothing last year-round. But the cycle seems to exist here as much as in other locations. My perceptions could be wrong, though. Maybe California has a less pronounced cycle.

Anonymous said...

Wow I've never heard of this dumping season before.

Which shows that there is still work to do, as if people don't know about it then it doesn't fulfil its function.

Or it could just be that I've a socially inept nerd, which is why I only ever got to dump 2 people in my life.

Ted Frank said...

I've never heard of dumping season either, and would suspect even by Glen's model that it's more common in early January or February 15. (From personal experience, those have been the two months most likely to reflect the end or beginning of a relationship.)

Is it really the case that relationships are more likely to start in May? And if so, why isn't it simply because young people are more likely to change locations in May because of the end of the school year, raising the costs of staying in a relationship, rather than some vague desire to stay together during April (as opposed to December or February) holidays?

Anonymous said...

I'm not buying it. During my dating years, I dumped when I got the first whiff of the "ickies," regardless of the season or what I perceived my outside prospects were.

Some people aren't looking to be in a relationship just for the sake of being in a relationship.

Ran said...

So you're saying that someone who wants to dump before the holidays, and who doesn't particularly mind being alone during the holidays, would nonetheless hold off on dumping, because they don't want to have to wait a few months before their next partner? Or are you saying that people at one equilibrium aren't actively thinking about the next equilibrium, so there's no planning going on — people don't dump before the holidays because there are no prospects for the future, even though if they thought about it (and were consciously aware of the trends) they'd realize there would be prospects in a few months?

Anonymous said...

Is it reasonable to say that romantic breakups tend to occur at a particular time of the year for the same reason that apartment leases tend to expire at a particular time of the year?

Glen Whitman said...

Doctorpat and Ted -- Well, it's possible I just imagined the phenomenon I'm trying to explain. I have no data on this, just personal observation. And yes, I think the dumping season is mostly January/February, depending on whether people decide to wait out Valentine's Day. Spring Mating Season follows shortly thereafter.

dgm -- That's an admirable policy you've got, but (as you know) you're an exceptional person. I think lots of people are willing to remain in relationships they don't see "going the distance" simply because they're good enough for now. And whether they're good enough for now depends on things like outside dating prospects.

Ran -- I'm saying something in between. There is some degree of anticipation, but most people would rather not wait several months before dating again. So the Dumping Season occurs mostly before the Mating Season, although there's overlap. Again, this is just my perception based on personal observation, unsupported by any hard data.

The Relationship Journalist said...

Interesting stuff here. In my book It's A Breakup, Not A Breakdown I talk about the best possible breakup dates. DON'T breakup between November and mid-February. The best time to dump someone is between March and September when the weather is warm, there are no major holidays in sight, and there's plenty of time to heal before the holiday season.

Lisa Steadman

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