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SFU economist runs the numbers on speed dating

February 09, 2017
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By Diane Luckow

Over the past dozen years or so, speed dating has diversified to suit niche interests. There’s vegan speed dating, speed dating for Harry Potter fans—heck, there’s even speed dating for dogs.

But how often does speed dating generate an exchange of contact information and a date? And how do daters choose a potential partner?

SFU economist Lucas Herrenbrueck

SFU economist Lucas Herrenbrueck, who is interested in economic search-and-matching theory, recently used data from a 2005 speed-dating study at Northwestern University, Illinois to estimate how people make decisions during uncertainty.

“It was a neat context in which to analyze the general theory of how people make decisions when they don’t know who else they will meet, and what those people may be looking for,” says Herrenbrueck. “It’s a similar decision-making process, for example, that SFU graduates and their potential employers will be going through.”

Working with a team of researchers from Hong Kong and the United States, his speed-dating research also asked how often people agree on who is attractive. Maybe surprisingly, the answer is “not very.”

He found attraction is mostly in the eye of the beholder and in fact, the attraction between two potential partners has a tendency to be mutual.

Still, he says, “some people are judged to be more attractive than others—and it looks like they know it.

“When participants agreed to exchange contact information with someone, their decision was not random, or independent from everyone else’s. People who were considered more attractive got more contact requests, and made fewer requests of their own. This shows they were thinking strategically: they knew they would get more options, and they responded by being more choosey.”

Herrenbrueck also discovered that only 22 per cent of meetings became “matches” where contact information was exchanged.

“If everybody just said “yes” to everyone they were kind of okay with, then there would be a 35 per cent match rate,” he says.

“But, because some people can afford to wait for someone awesome, the match rate drops to just 22 per cent.”

So, is there hope for singles as Valentine’s day approaches?

Herrenbrueck prefers to see the glass as half full: “Only 22 per cent sounds low, but you will also meet a lot of people in a speed-dating session. In this study, six out of seven participants had at least one match. We think this is because attraction also has a tendency to be mutual: if you like someone more than other people do, then they tend to feel the same for you. Without this, a lot more participants would have gone home empty-handed.”

So how do these results impact Herrenbrueck’s interest in search-and-matching theory and real-world decision-making?

“In the future, I might use this theory to understand the job market better. Graduates are looking for jobs, employers are looking for great employees. People have their own preferences, but they don’t disagree completely. It takes a lot of time to find the perfect match, so it’s very important to know how we can make that process as efficient as possible.”