As a little background, I’m Mormon and we take marriage seriously — a high ideal worth working for. Because dating is the process that leads to marriage, we usually take dating seriously too. We might do well to be both more serious and less serious about dating — more deliberate, but less anxious. I look to my parents, several good friends, and others as models of good marriages. This talk by Richard G. Scott also paints a good picture: “The Eternal Blessings of Marriage”.
I’ve been thinking about this post for almost two years and the ideas in this post for even longer. I’m 33, so I’ve had over a decade of post-mission dating. The differences I see between my dating world and the one described by my parents’ or grandparents’ generation will likely be even more stark for my future children, so these are the observations I’ll share with them:
Be careful of distraction and other mental traps
Some people have told me, “Your generation is scared of commitment.” While that may be true for some people, I believe distraction and other mental traps are larger factors
. Ironically, distractions even affect the people who desperately want to get married.
Here are a few distractions and mental traps I’ve observed:
It’s not really the time wasted on Facebook. It’s that you can travel down a “rabbit hole” of looking at pictures of attractive people you don’t know, looking at events that you’re not attending, and deluding yourself into thinking you’re “meeting” people. Of course, no one thinks they’re actually meeting people, but your mind can be tricked into thinking you’re making progress. And you’ll probably believe your own dating isn’t very exciting. I’ve had friends go down that rabbit hole and say “she looks like my type — why can’t I find someone like her?” and then come out of the rabbit hole to say “Where did the last 30 minutes go?”
In this trap, the strangers on Facebook we don’t know seem more attractive than the real people we do know. Of course, those strangers are also real people with strengths and weaknesses too, but we build them up in our minds.
In The Great Gatsby, Jay fell into this trap: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion…. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
The aggregation effect
Suppose you go to a dessert party, talk to several attractive people, and have a great time. Which one do you want to date? None of them? You may have just been fooled by the “aggregation effect”.
The aggregation effect is that you mentally combine all the attractive qualities of a group of people and subconsciously believe there’s one person out there who possesses all those qualities. Amy dresses well, Beth is well-read and interesting, and Candace laughs at your jokes, which makes the party fun, but if you don’t want to take someone on a date, then your mind may have fooled you. Again, this is subconscious.
Related to the aggregation effect is an elevated “baseline”. Think of your baseline as your average day-to-day excitement or happiness. It might be loosely associated with dopamine levels in your brain. When you meet someone attractive, your excitement level rises above the baseline. It’s novel and exciting.
By constantly attending parties, dessert parties, group activities, huge dances, etc. with exciting/attractive/interesting people, I believe it’s possible to raise your “baseline” so that you’re no longer excited by one individual.
To paraphrase Jeffrey R. Holland, no one is as handsome or as beautiful or as brilliant in school or as witty in speech as all of us are combined.
With 1 person, you have to carry the conversation about 50% of the time, and you get to hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation the other 50% of the time. At a dessert party with 20 people, you might carry the conversation just 5% of the time, but you hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation 95% of the time. Parties are biased to provide you far more novelty and entertainment than any one person can provide alone.
How to kill a moth
Nature magazine published an article on how moths were exterminated in Australia using their own natural pheromones instead of manufactured insecticides. (Pheromones are a natural substance released by female moths to attract male moths.) One method was to build a snare into which the male moths would enter and not escape. The second method didn’t require a physical snare at all:
[It] is called the confusion method. An airplane scatters an environmentally insignificant number of very small plastic pellets imbedded with the scent of the pheromone, and only a few of these pellets per acre are enough to overpower the male’s ability to find the female. He is thus desensitized to the natural scent of the female by this compelling scent. The Australian article describes the confusion method as follows, “The male either becomes confused and does’t know which direction to turn for the female, or he becomes desensitized to the lower levels of pheromones naturally given out by the female and has no incentive to mate with her.” (Quoted by Dr. Donald Hilton, Lighted Candle Society Annual Banquet, May, 13, 2009)
The male moth was exterminated by raising the baseline pheromone level of its environment.
Adlai E. Stevenson was a candidate for U.S. president in 1952 and 1956. He said that from citizens we need “not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime”. That also sounds like a good formula for a relationship. To be open and vulnerable in marriage, you’d want your partner to be steady, not frenzied.
Incidentally, that’s opposite of what makes romance exciting. Drama is fun! Drama is exciting!
What makes slot machines addictive and dogs trainable is intermittent variable reward or IVR, the idea that it’s easier to manipulate behavior with random rewards than consistent rewards. “[A] dolphin rewarded with a fishy treat every six jumps will soon become lackadaisical about the five in-between ones; reward it at random, however, and it’ll jump vigorously, never knowing which jump will bring fish.”
If you date someone that’s up and down, hot and cold, it certainly may be exciting. The transition from cold to hot is exciting because of the contrast, but your mind may be tricked by this IVR effect. On the other hand, someone who’s consistent and steady may not be as provocative to your amygdala but they may provide more safety in a relationship. Our minds trick us into wanting excitement when we may prefer steadiness.
In pop culture, this is called being “no drama”. The recently passed Margaret Thatcher said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Being no-drama seems about the same.
Lower the costs of dating, and not just financial costs
Much has been said about reducing the financial cost of dates, and I think it’s good advice. I also think it’s more than financial costs. Keeping dates inexpensive is also about reducing the transaction and risk costs.
The transaction cost of a date is all the “fuss” before and after a date.
The risk cost of a date is how emotionally painful or socially awkward it will be if this date doesn’t work out.
Things that increase the transaction costs and risk costs of dating:
- Making a big deal out of date, whether yours or a friend’s
- Jumping to conclusions about someone you like
- Jumping to conclusions about someone you don’t like
- Talking too much or too soon with your roommates/friends about your dates
- After your roommate’s date, asking “Is he/she THE ONE?”
- Spreading the news that two people went on a date
Dating as a conversation topic should be as mundane as the weather.
I know a young lady who lived by herself and didn’t talk about her dates, even with girlfriends. She sometimes had dates on different nights with guys who knew each other but didn’t know they were all dating her. She effectively reduced the cost of asking her on a date because guys learned that they could ask her on a date without burning bridges with anyone else. Later she started dating one of them steadily and it became public.
As my friend Tristen says, stop talking about your first dates.
Suppose I have a daughter who doesn’t get married until later in life. It may be difficult for her to stay optimistic and cheerful about dating. However, I’ll try to explain to her how important it is to be as carefree and cheerful as she was when she first started dating. I might say, “If a guy perceives that asking you on a date might get your hopes up and hurt you if it doesn’t work out, he may not be inclined to take that risk, for fear of hurting your feelings. Stay optimistic and reduce the risk for him to get to know you.”
I like these words from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, not once. I have discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work” and “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Dating is a process of experimentation, trying to find the right fit. It doesn’t have to be viewed as compounding disappointment until it’s finally, happily over. It can be fun along the way, and we can learn a lot from each other, even when it doesn’t work out.