A Cost/Benefit Analysis of Going On A Date
Some depressing personal mathematics
I can’t speak for how other people’s brains work, but I can speak for mine.
I like precision and literal things. I prefer it when people state their intentions clearly and without ambiguity. I prefer talking about ideas to talking about people.
I often find myself uncertain if I’ve picked up social cues correctly - this was much worse when I was younger, but applies to this day. Cultural cornerstones of interaction often seem to me to be unnecessary, stupid, and pointless. Nonverbal, ambiguous signals might as well be in Swahili for all I can understand them.
All of this to say that dating is not an activity I enjoy.
I understand, intellectually, that there are people that enjoy it, and I can appreciate that there are aspects to it that, in other contexts, could be enjoyable: meeting new people, the excitement of possibility, the flutter of nerves in one’s belly and finding that spark of connection with another human being - all good things.
The problem is that every activity - dating included - isn’t just good things. It’s good and bad - reward and risk - juice and squeeze - gain and loss - benefit and cost.
And for me, dating just doesn’t pass a cost/benefit analysis.
The Benefits of Dating
Let’s start with the upside.
I’ve already said that I get very little out of the experience itself - meeting someone new, banter, flirting, getting to know them, trying to see if there’s a match. It’s not bad, per se, just…it feels kinda pointless, since the odds that any particular date will lead to something long-term are low, meaning that whatever I learn about the person is unlikely to matter much in the future.
Thinking only about the activity itself, without any expected future benefits, the benefit of going on a date for me is the experience - with each date I can learn something about what I’m looking for in a partner, and become better at determining if the person I’m across from is a match.
But that’s burying the lede - the whole point of dating, at least for me, is finding a partner. It’s the whole reason I do it to begin with.
In my mind, if dating is playing the game, then finding someone to settle down with is winning. And I’m here to win, not to play. There are plenty of other games I would rather spend my time on.
So I’m dating to find a partner, preferably one I’ll be with for the long haul.
But that’s not an immediate benefit, it’s an uncertain future benefit, and so follows the rules of expected value.
In other words, if we were to quantify the benefit of a given date in terms of possibly finding a partner, it would look like:
Benefit = (Benefit of Having Partner) x (Probability of This Specific Date Being That Partner)
And while the first term is large, the second is small. I would love to be in a committed, healthy relationship, but the odds of any given date leading to one are, in my experience, rather low.
So the full benefit equation for dating would be:
Benefit = (Benefit of Having Partner) x (Probability of This Specific Date Being That Partner) + (Benefit of Experience Making Future Dates Better)
It’s not nothing, but it’s very dependent upon the size of the terms, which could vary wildly. Is (Probability of This Specific Date Being That Partner) = 1/5? 1/10? 1/100?
Quick googling suggests it’s at least 1/10 on average, but some people never meet a partner, so there’s no lower bound on how small the probability could be.
Whereas having a life partner would undoubtedly be of enormous but finite value.
In other words, the total benefit of going on a date is:
one large but finite number multiplied by
a small but possibly infinitesimal (or zero) number,
plus a little bit extra.
And the extra is not that much, because it’s only making me better at an activity that I already don’t want to be doing, and hopefully will be able to not do for the majority of my life.
Not a large benefit in total, then.
The Costs of Dating
Now for the costs of dating.
First to consider is the cost of getting - and setting up - a date to begin with. I won’t go into the details here, it’s something for a future post, but it’s not a simple task. It involves dating apps and scheduling and often driving long distances, along with convincing another human being that it’s safe and okay to meet in real life.
Now, my brain does a thing here, that I suspect many people’s brains do, and that might technically be called ‘hope’.
When I get a date, especially one I’m excited about, I start to imagine what a future with this person might look like. I’m hardly planning baby names, but I find it difficult to plan ahead for anything without understanding what goal I’m trying to achieve. Since I’m trying to achieve a life partnership, I start envisioning that life partnership - it becomes a real thing, living inside my head, that I feel I can work towards, that makes the effort of going on the date worthwhile.
How many of you have thought during a first date that it would make a good story to tell your children?
So the second cost is the cost of that hope - it’s an emotional investment, it’s time and thought and care put into a dimly possible maybe-future that, in all likelihood, will never materialize.
Then there’s the straightforward social cost of going on the date. I’m an introvert; I recover my energy by being alone, and spend it when I’m with others. So going on a date is stressful and nerve-wracking (as it is for many), which is a lot of energy to expend. I often can’t get much else done that day.
Lastly, there’s the opportunity cost of going on a date. If I go on a date, I’m not doing something else that I find more enjoyable. I’m not spending my time with my friends or pursuing other goals. I’m not relaxing or working out or reading a book.
Time can only be spent once, and in one way. Spending time dating means spending less time doing the activities I do enjoy.
To sum up, the cost of dating is:
The logistical cost of getting and setting up the date, plus
The emotional cost of hoping that the date could turn out well, plus
The social cost of interacting with a stranger, plus
The opportunity cost of not doing anything else with that time.
In an equation:
Cost = Logistical Cost + Emotional Cost + Social Cost + Opportunity Cost
And that’s just the cost of going on a date. It doesn’t take into account the cost of rejection, heartbreak, or any of the other emotional tolls this sort of thing involves.
Pulling the equations together, the overall utility of going on a date, for me - what I get out of it - can be expressed as:
= Benefit - Cost
= (Benefit of Having Partner) x (Probability of This Specific Date Being That Partner)
+ (Benefit of Experience Making Future Dates Better)
- (Logistical Cost + Emotional Cost + Social Cost + Opportunity Cost)
Even with generous assumptions, that is not a large number. It generally isn’t even a positive number, most days. The costs of going on any specific date clearly outweigh the benefits.
So yeah, I don’t like dating. It has a negative expected utility, and I don’t enjoy the process.
So…do I resign myself to life as a recluse? Is there an alternative?
If this were anything else, I’d stop. Investing time and energy into an activity with a negative expected utility is like setting your own money on fire. It’s a bad investment.
The truth is, I don’t have a good answer here.
On the one hand, dating is not something I want to be doing.
On the other hand, if I stop trying, am I resigning myself to being alone for the rest of my life? To never having a family?
Is that something I’m willing to do?
For now, the equilibrium that’s settled over me is an uneasy truce: I sometimes muster up the will and energy to go on a few dates, they don’t go anywhere, and then I spend long periods of time redoing the math and doing my best to ignore that dating is a thing that exists.
It’s a struggle between the short- and the long-term, the pull of hope against the costs of realizing said hope.
What’s your experience? Do you see the benefits and costs differently? Does the math - or did the math - work out better for you?
Let me know.
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