Immigration is a magnificent thing. I want to see more of it, not less. As a country we may have misconceptions about immigration that actually make us worse off. I hope to persuade you to think differently about immigrants and immigration.

I see immigration as the ability to visit, travel, live, or work where you choose. When speaking about immigration below, I am not speaking about citizenship, with the attendant rights to vote, receive benefits from government programs, etc. I’ll consider that a separate topic.

Photo by Kevin Miller
Photo by Kevin Miller

Let’s get the easy part out of the way. Immigration of highly educated people seems more easily accepted. If someone comes to the U.S. for a PhD program, why not staple a visa to their diploma upon graduation?, it has been said.

  • Companies founded by 1st-generation immigrants include Google, Yahoo, Intel, PayPal, Tesla, eBay, Kohl’s, Comcast, and Nordstrom.
  • Companies founded by 2nd-generation Americans include Apple (Steve Jobs’s biological father was a Syrian immigrant), Amazon (Jeff Bezos’s step-father, who raised him, was from Cuba), and IBM.
  • Companies currently run by foreign-born CEOs include Microsoft, Adobe, Pepsi, and CitiGroup.

It’s hard to imagine arguing against the above type of immigration. We should want as many founders and CEOs of companies as we can get. These new companies create thousands of jobs and improve our lives through the products they develop. Likewise, in chronically under-staffed positions such as for computer programmers, nurses, and doctors in rural areas, we should want as many immigrants as we can get.

But we should not stop there.

Even low-skilled or no-skilled immigrants are a boon to society and we should be far more accepting and encouraging of this type of immigration than we are.

In short, we should be accepting of all types of immigration.

Immigration is often synonymous with Mexican immigration, and that’s not unwarranted. The largest migration of one country’s citizens to the U.S. was the 12M Mexican immigrants that have come in the last 40 years[1]. However, Mexican immigration has slowed or even stopped (on net) in recent years. There are now more Asian immigrants than all Hispanics[2].

What I have learned about Mexican immigration

  • The U.S. border was largely unenforced before 1970. Migrations were seasonal.[3]
  • “By 1980, about half of Mexican immigrants living in the United States were unauthorized” [3]
  • Mexico has been the largest source of immigrants in U.S. history. In the last four decades, roughly 12 million immigrants have come from Mexico. [1]
  • “The Mexican-born population continued to grow until 2007. At that point, the combined effects of the failing U.S. economy, increased border enforcement, more expensive and dangerous crossings, violence at the border, and changes with the Mexican population and economy brought this population growth to a halt.” [3]
  • “In recent years, there appears to be less short-term seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S., perhaps because of the increased costs and risks of crossing the border.” [3]
  • The net migration from Mexico has stopped; that is, roughly as many people go from the U.S. to Mexico as come from Mexico to the U.S. now. [1]
  • More Asians have immigrated here in the last five years than Hispanics. [2]
  • Border apprehensions are at the lowest since 1971. [4][5]
  • According to a 2010 survey among labor migrants in Mexico who previously worked in the U.S., 20% said they would not return, compared with 7% in 2005. [4]
  • Immigrants to the U.S. are more educated than they’ve ever been and are more likely than the U.S. born to have a degree. 41% of immigrants in the last 5 years have at least a bachelor’s degree. [6]
  • Why more immigration?

    There are several reasons to allow more immigration, appealing to our self-interest, our altruism, and our understanding of human rights and liberty.

    Black Swan Immigrants

    Some immigrants have created life-changing companies, some of them mentioned above. However, we’ve denied entrance to many other potential immigrants. What companies and products have these would-be-immigrants not created because they lack similar opportunities at home? What if someone in Ghana, India, or China, with the right education or opportunity, has a cure for cancer or aging, or an invention that can turn salt water into drinking water economically?

    What life-changing or life-saving inventions are we missing out on because a would-be immigrant is not here?

    It’s not just about high-tech. If you’ve eaten at any Asian restaurant in the last few years, you’ve probably seen Sriracha sauce, the red hot sauce in a large, round bottle with a green spout. It was named Ingredient of the Year in 2010. Sriracha sauce was created by David Tran, a refugee from Vietnam whose company is named after the freighter ship on which he escaped from Vietnam, the Huy Fong.[14]

    What foods, flavors, and experiences are we missing out on because a would-be immigrant is not here?

    Indeed, not every immigrant will cure cancer or introduce a well-loved food product. We might call these immigrants “Black Swan immigrants,” to borrow a phrase from Nassim Taleb, because they are rare. However, to increase the likelihood of these “Black Swan” events — huge, breakthrough contributions by immigrants — we need to increase the number of rolls of the dice, allowing more immigrants to come here and take their chances. I doubt we, or even they, could know ahead of time what break-through contributions they might make under the right circumstances.

    Photo by Kevin Miller
    Photo by Kevin Miller

    Working-class immigrants

    Even if most immigrants won’t make break-through contributions to the world — and again, we won’t know which ones until they have the opportunity — all working immigrants are a positive addition to the economy.

    I don’t suppose employers hire immigrants for charity. An immigrant may not speak English as well as a native-born American and may not be familiar with the culture of the customers. To hire an immigrant implies the immigrant will do the job better and/or more affordably than someone else (not to mention the increased cultural richness for the customers and co-workers, which some employers appreciate.) The ability alone to do a job better and/or cheaper is a win for the economy.

    Labor is a key ingredient in most products and services we buy. When labor is cheaper, the products and services we consume become less expensive. Imagine cheaper food or electronics, or a less expensive night out at a restaurant. Cheaper products and services also help the poor, even more so than they help the middle-class.

    In addition, immigrants don’t just sell us their labor, they buy our products. To have more immigrants in the economy is to increase aggregate demand in the economy.

    Because We’re Human

    In addition to strong, self-interested reasons to want more immigrants here, allowing more immigration is a way to exercise our altruism and humanity.

    To allow immigrants to come here is to let the very poor lift themselves out of poverty. I suspect very few immigrants want a hand-out, and most simply want the opportunity to work. Why take the risk to leave home and live far away from family if not for the opportunity? The “lazy” immigrants don’t immigrate; they stay home.

    Immigrants send money to their friends and family in home countries. This is the most ennobling form of international aid. This money reaches individual families, one by one, and is not a large grant of one country to another.

    A Natural Right

    In addition to economic and altruistic reasons, a belief in natural rights also supports immigration. This is the idea that we have natural rights from our Creator, or from our humanity, that precede and supercede government institutions.

    The right to travel is an individual personal human right, long recognized under the natural law as immune from governmental interference. Of course, governments have been interfering with this right for millennia. The Romans restricted the travel of Jews; Parliament restricted the travel of serfs; Congress restricted the travel of slaves; and starting in the late 19th century, the federal government has restricted the travel of non-Americans who want to come here and even the travel of those already here. All of these abominable restrictions of the right to travel are based not on any culpability of individuals, but rather on membership in the groups to which persons have belonged from birth.

    Yet, the freedom to travel is a fundamental natural right. This is not a novel view. In addition to Aquinas and Jefferson, it has been embraced by St. Augustine, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II and Justice Clarence Thomas. Our fundamental human rights are not conditioned or even conditionable on the laws or traditions of the place where our mothers were physically located when we were born. They are not attenuated because our mothers were not in the United States at the moment of our births. Stated differently, we all possess natural rights, no more and no less than any others. All humans have the full panoply of freedom of choice in areas of personal behavior protected from governmental interference by the natural law, no matter where they were born. — Judge Andrew Napolitano

    In the 19th century, the Burlingame Treaty between the United States and China’s Qing Dynasty, recognized “the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of … free migration and emigration … for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents”. Wikipedia


    But immigrants use our government programs

    While I suspect few immigrants come here for the government benefits, but for work opportunities, it’s worth looking at this.

    Temporary immigrants and undocumented immigrants are generally ineligible for benefits. Lawful permament residents are eligible after 5 years. One source indicates immigrants are less likely to receive public benefits and when they do, they use less than native-born people. [7]

    In fact, it may be true that allowing more immigrant workers will help the social security program, precisely at a time when there are many baby boomers retiring and not enough young workers to fund it. [8]

    It’s true that temporary or undocumented immigrants may use emergency room services and schools. However, isn’t public education considered a public good precisely because the education of youth should have a multiplying effect in society? Why would that not also apply to immigrants?

    Bill Niskanen said, “build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.” [6]

    But immigrants steal our jobs

    The idea that a job “belongs” to a country strikes me as odd. Why not let the employer and employee decide?

    But immigrants use our government programs and steal our jobs

    Marc Andreessen identified the irony of the above two claims, side by side:

    He also said if immigrants steal our jobs, so do our children.

    But immigrants depress our wages

    As mentioned above, when labor costs can be reduced, the system is working. This means lower prices for you on a variety of products and services.

    But immigrants are criminals

    “Although a host of reasons exists to expect that immigrants are high-crime prone, the bulk of empirical studies conducted over the past century have found that immigrants are typically underrepresented in criminal statistics.”[9]

    But if we open our doors wider, we’ll have a flood of immigrants. They will overwhelm our cities and infrastructure.

    Counterintuitively, strict immigration controls may have the effect of keeping people here that would like to go home. If you’re a migrant farm worker, why go home in the off-season if it will be difficult to return?

    Ronald Reagan…championed a version of open borders: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems? Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then, while they’re working and earning here, they’d pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back. They can cross. Open the borders both ways.”[17]

    But immigrants don’t assimilate

    Suppose immigrants really don’t assimilate, that is, become “normal Americans”. That doesn’t really bother me. We live in a pluralistic society with a variety of cultures. Immigrants have every economic incentive to integrate with society at large, so I see no reason to force it. It will happen naturally.

    In any case, one study showed, “Immigrants have opinions barely discernible from those of native-born Americans.” One hypothesis was, “Those who decide to come here mostly admire American institutions or have opinions on policy that are very similar to those of native-born Americans.”[10] That is, immigrants may have some pre-existing affinity toward the U.S. or they might not have come here.

    But terrorism

    I see the issues of immigration and terrorism as orthogonal to each other. That may not be entirely true, but consider this. A wall around the U.S. would not have kept out any of the 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 attack, who came here on a variety of student, tourist, or business visas.[11] It’s also not clear to me that reducing legal immigration levels to zero would have prevented the attacks, nor is it clear that increasing legal immigration now will mean future attacks.

    While I appreciate law enforcement efforts to reduce terrorist threats, terrorism is so statistically rare that I don’t see wisdom in connecting it closely with immigration policy. (You are more likely to be killed by disease, car crash, or lightning strike than by terrorism.[12])

    OK, but immigrants must learn English

    A non-English-speaking immigrant has every incentive to learn English to improve his/her own opportunities. One such incentive would be to access government services or apply for citizenship, but immigration alone would not require knowledge of English. I see no need for a language requirement.

    OK, but only if immigrants come (or come back) legally. No amnesty.

    I find this argument interesting. If the only thing you dislike about immigration is that illegal immigrants came here illegally, why don’t we simply wave our wand, declare them forgiven, and welcome them to full fellowship in the economy? That would solve their problem and ours, our problem being the dissonance about their being here illegally.

    I suspect that any punitive effort to “get tough” on illegal immigrants — requiring them to pay a fine, requiring them to go home and “get in line,” asking them to pay back taxes — will not work. Illegals are already here illegally. They’re already in the shadows. Why not break down the barriers, make it easy for them to join the ranks of tax-paying workers, and welcome them to society?

    Bad Policy Ideas

    A Wall

    There is no wall high enough, deep enough, or with enough laser-shooting drones patroling it, that can physically keep people out of the United States. When you hear a politican say, “Let’s build a wall,” it should trigger your spidey sense. Discussion about building a wall is a way for politicians to sound tough on immigration, possibly pandering to a crowd, and a great way to give a large contractor millions of tax-payer dollars. Dismiss this idea out of hand when you hear it.

    VIDEO: John Stossel on immigration and building a wall


    E-Verify is a federal program to track the right to work of each employee. The idea is that if you apply for a new job, the employer looks up your name in a national database and proves that you can legally work. Four states require all their employers to participate in E-Verify: Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

    A recent audit of E-Verify concluded that the system has an error rate of 0.3 to 0.7%, meaning that if all 150M American workers were run through the system, 450,000 to a 1M workers would be incorrectly flagged as ineligible to work. If you were incorrectly flagged as illegal, imagine a DMV-like experience to resolve the issue and earn back the “right” to work.[13]

    Breaking up families through deportation

    In 2010, 87% of immigrants deported to Mexico were male, and 34% of those were married. 53% of the total (male and female) were the head of their household.[3] Breaking up families by deporting individuals strikes me as a horrible idea. It may also cause a previously self-sufficient home to become dependent on community or government programs.

    Mass deportation

    “Removing millions of undocumented workers from the economy would also remove millions of entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers. The economy would actually lose jobs. Second, native-born workers and immigrant workers tend to possess different skills that often complement one another.” [18]

    Texas Comptroller Susan Combs stated, “Without the undocumented population, Texas’ work force would decrease by 6.3 percent” and Texas’ gross state product would decrease by 2.1 percent. Furthermore, certain segments of the U.S. economy, like agriculture, are entirely dependent upon illegal immigrants.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that, “about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico.” The USDA has also warned that, “any potential immigration reform could have significant impacts on the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry.” From the perspective of National Milk Producers Federation in 2009, retail milk prices would increase by 61 percent if its immigrant labor force were eliminated.[15]

    Restricted tourism

    The average tourist from China spends $6,243 during his or her trip, and the average tourists from India and Brazil spend $6,131 and $4,940, respectively. But long waits for visas – more than 100 days for an interview in Brazil – have resulted in tourists traveling elsewhere. Between 2000 and 2010, these delays cost the United States $606 billion in travel and tourism output, 467,000 American jobs, and as many as 78 million visitors.[16]


    I have attempted to persuade you that immigration is fully a good thing. Admittedly, I have not proposed any policy specifics. Instead, I’m proposing we start by looking more kindly at immigrants. As you evaluate candidates and political proposals, and discuss this issue with friends, look more favorably on immigration.

    Look skeptically at politicians who label immigrants as a problem. To get “tough on immigration” should sound as odd to us as getting tough on any other good thing. Would it not sound off to hear, “tough on innovation,” “tough on economic growth,” “tough on culture,” or “tough on the poor”? “Tough on immigration” should sound equally odd.

    I see increased immigration as the humane, liberty-minded, small-government, pro-economic-growth approach.

    There is room for discussion about policy details, but on the margins we should look more favorably at immigration.

    At a personal level, an immigrant does not need to be well-educated, speak English, have special skills, or have documents to be welcome here.

    Further Watching and Reading



    Two Ways to Think about Self-Improvement

    Photo by Kevin Miller
    Photo by Kevin Miller

    A few months ago I realized I don’t like setting goals. However, I admire people who work this way. “I’m preparing for a triathlon next summer.” For some people, a triathlon next summer is the best way to run on the treadmill today.

    If you like to set goals, you are outcome-focused. The outcomes are explicit; the actions are implicit.

    The alternative (and my preference) is to focus directly on daily, weekly, and monthly actions and habits. “Read a good book every day.” “Visit the gym three times per week.”

    If you like to focus on habits and routines, you are action-focused. The actions are explicit; the outcomes are implicit.

    But without a goal, how do you know your gym time will make you ready for a triathlon? I don’t know. But that approach doesn’t work for me. Incidentally, I don’t signup for triathlons. (But it sounds like a fun mindset if you have it.)

    Outcome focus is top-down. This is Stephen Covey’s approach in Seven Habits where he describes “beginning with the end in mind”.

    Once you have that sense of mission, you have the essence of your own proactivity. You have the vision and the values which direct your life. You have the basic direction from which you set your long- and short-term goals. You have the power of a written constitution based on correct principles, against which every decision concerning the most effective use of your time, your talents, and your energies can be effectively measured. (pp. 108-109)

    Action focus is bottom-up. This is David Allen’s approach in Getting Things Done:

    I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down…. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective. (pp. 19-20)

    By the way, does the action focus cause more discouragement? What if I want to read a good book everyday, but I didn’t read yesterday? I prefer to think of goals, of any type, as prospective not retrospective. Goals drive your future behavior. They’re not a stick to beat yourself with.

    Both approaches lead to what you are becoming. “I want to be an avid reader.” “I want to be a patient person.” No matter what approach you take, it seems important to focus on what you are becoming.

    Thanks to Kevin Miller, James Miller, and Brian Henderson for conversations that led to this post.

    Independently Strong

    Three years ago I read a weight training book that was more influential on me than I expected.


    According to the book, called “Training for Mass” by Gordon La Velle, weight training is best done at high intensity. You might think all weight training is high-intensity. High-intensity training (HIT) is a particular flavor of weight training that advocates deliberate, intense action, in a short workout, to stimulate muscle growth. While some people who lift weights may spend hours at the gym, several times per week, with multiple sets per exercise, Training for Mass says this is overkill. It’s unnecessary at best, and may cause burnout or injury at worst. What’s needed is just one “work set” per muscle group, once per week. But it must be very intense.

    “The higher intensity, the greater the growth stimulation. Within the realm of weight training, where muscular growth itself is the objective, the ability to generate a high level of intensity is the most critical factor under your control.” (p. 33)

    Source: Flickr user mjzitek
    Source: Flickr user mjzitek

    Contrast the objective of muscular growth with the objective of appearing strong. If my goal is only to appear strong, there are certainly ways to fake it:

    • Assisted repetitions — An assisted repetition is when your friend helps you lift the bar. “If someone is helping you lift the weights, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in physics to deduce that the weight you’re lifting is equal to the mass of the weight minus the force being applied by the helper….” (p. 111)
    • Cheating — Cheating is to use bouncing, or momentum, or a change in your body position to lift more weight than normal. Not good. “[There] should be no bouncing, swinging, or using any other deliberate technique meant to increase the momentum of the lift. Any momentum present in the lift should come only from the simple linear movement of the weight.” (p. 107)

    (Technical note: There is a place for assisted reps and cheating — on the very last repetition. Because it’s harder to raise weight than to lower weight, our muscles burn out on the raising part of a repetition (“concentric contraction”) before they burn out on the lowering part (“eccentric contraction”). When you can no longer lift on your own, assistance or cheating, if it can be done safely, can be used to raise the weight one more time, and then you should lower the weight entirely on your own.)

    If your goal is muscular growth and you’ve been using assists or cheats (for more than the last rep), it’s better to reduce the weight, and the *appearance* of strength, and use a weight you can actually lift on your own.

    “Why don’t these lifters just go lighter and lift the weight themselves, at least before reaching failure? This seems like it would make a whole lot more sense. Inflated egos might be the culprit here, since the lifters may want to appear to be lifting heavier weights.” (p. 111)

    Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis
    Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis


    Suppose we think of our character as a muscle. How could the above principles change our mindset about the development of character?

    One of my favorite quotes of all time is from D. Todd Christofferson:

    “[God] is endeavoring to make us independently strong — more able to act for ourselves than perhaps those of any prior generation.”

    To me, “independently strong” is different from “appearing to be strong” or “strong when assisted.” I don’t know that we can expect to have character that’s chiseled and solid without actually lifting heavy weight. When the weight is heavy and it feels like there’s no Trainer assisting, maybe that’s on purpose.

    A friend recently told me that 2013 has been the hardest year of his life. If we had been leaving the gym, and he had said this was the hardest *workout* of his life, I would have congratulated him. Maybe hard days and hard years are cause for congratulations. If you’re having the hardest year of your life, maybe you’re becoming the strongest you’ve ever been.

    UPDATE on May 17, 2014: Elder David A. Bednar has an excellent talk on burdens: Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease

    The Evidence of Things Not Seen

    I wasn’t planning to write this today, but I want to.


    It was two years ago today that my brother David left home. We thought he had run away to start a new life or something. Then last fall, we learned he had passed away.

    I feel melancholy thinking about my brother today. However, I also feel a sense of peace that I will see David again. I actually feel very assured about that.

    That raises a question: Why should a rational person feel assured of something he can’t see or demonstrate, such as life after death?

    The five senses are considered our inputs for rational thinking. However, I’ve learned I can know things outside of my five, traditional senses. There are other, finer senses that give us knowledge about spiritual things. We can cultivate these finer senses and trust them. They contribute to rational thinking. For me, faith and religion help cultivate these finer senses.

    Traditional thought is that religion is at odds with science; it’s religion versus science. However, we can think about it differently, as religion plus science. Both are methods for learning truth.

    In fact, religion may sometimes know things before science knows them, especially at a personal level. In that way, religion is sort of “indy” truth — truth before it goes mainstream. Eventually religion and science will be reconciled as separate views of one great whole.

    In the meantime, religion and faith appear “supernatural” or “magic” to outsiders. Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Subject of faith seems supernatural because we don’t understand it fully, but I think it’s more natural than we know.

    As I come to understand spiritual things little by little, they seem less foreign, less “magical”. What is “supernatural” now will eventually just be “natural”, because our understanding will have changed. As Tim Berners-Lee said, “Everything you don’t understand is magic. When you understand things, there’s no more magic.”

    On a day like today, I’m grateful for the possibility of knowing additional truths by faith.

    I really enjoyed this 5-minute clip from Professor Clayton Christensen discussing science, religion, and the pursuit of truth (starting at 2:55):

    There’s also a great interview with John Lewis, a scientist discussing religion and science as being like two lenses in a pair of glasses:

    Update, Aug 2, 2014: Here’s a recent, related quote from Elder Russell M. Nelson: “Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside…. Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    Dating Advice For My Future Children

    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

    Source: Minnesota Historical Society
    Source: Minnesota Historical Society
    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:

    Facebook, etc.

    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”.

    Source: Flickr user Doug88888
    Source: Flickr user Doug88888

    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.

    Elevated baseline

    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:

    Source: Flickr user Benimoto
    Source: Flickr user Benimoto

    [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

    Source: Flickr user The Fayj
    Source: Flickr user The Fayj

    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.”

    Source: Flickr user DanieleCivello
    Source: Flickr user DanieleCivello
    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.