When first I dared write about Susan Patton’s Spouse Selection Theory I suggested that, if adopted by a sufficient number of undergraduates, it would doom the hookup culture.
Now, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser throws his considerable authority behind the idea:
While I don't feel I can provide advice to young women, I am comfortable, based on both personal experience and the infallible majesty of economic theory, urging young male Princetonians to view your female classmates as prospective long-term friends and spouses (the qualifications for the two roles having much in common), rather than short-term amorous encounters.
Young women could help college men toward this radical transformation by refusing to act as though they see themselves as worthy of no more than “short-term amorous encounters.”
To be fair, Glaeser is less than thrilled with the idea of marrying young.
In his words:
However, my own finely tuned algebraic simulations of an optimal spousal-search model find that while college provides an ideal time to accumulate a large stock of good friends (prospective spouses), it is typically suboptimal to wed at age 21 because of preference uncertainty and the benefits of continuing to meet alternatives.
Logically speaking, Glaeser is correct. If you marry young you will be closing off a myriad of opportunities for post-collegiate partying. And you will be missing out on the opportunity to try out the many alternative human possibilities that will surely cross your path.
On the other hand there is another opportunity cost: many of those alternative possibilities will involve you in traumatic encounters and relationship failures.
Glaeser does not seem to have estimated the fact that if men cease thinking of young women as hookups, it will become far more likely that many of them will marry young.
He also underscores another unpleasant truth, namely, that elite colleges function as matchmakers. They do not merely select students based on grades and extracurricular activities: they choose students based on skills that will make them good spouses, thus more likely to perpetuate themselves as an elite class.
Ross Douthat makes the same point in his column this morning:
The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?
That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!
By definition, elite colleges a provide a relatively small number of potential mates.
Patton’s phrase that “you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you” has been interpreted as unpleasant elitism. Her critics are certainly right that neither Princeton nor Harvard has any particular monopoly on virtue or intellect. Another interpretation is that what she said could have applied to any tightly knit campus of full-time students.
The college experience is profoundly different from what comes before and after in life. It is when 19-year-olds have chance encounters in different settings that make it easy to befriend and evaluate others. And they have enough free time to follow relationships where they may lead. Few of us will ever again walk into a dining hall filled with 100 interesting members of the opposite sex of roughly the same age.
Economists have demonstrated that it is easier to make a selection when there are fewer items to choose from. The rule applies to the detergent aisle at the supermarket. It also applies to spouse selection.
If a young person is faced with an overwhelmingly large number of prospective mates he or she will have more difficulty settling for one. If there are that many possibilities, there must be one who is perfect. So, why settle for a spouse who has flaws.
Also, when you graduate college and start meeting people in bars and clubs, even at work, they have not been vetted by the Princeton admissions office.
We are naturally more inclined to trust someone who has been pre-selected and designated as an appropriate spouse. When you meet someone at random you know nothing about him and will be less likely to accord him your trust.
In Glaeser’s words:
Rather, the college-selection process tries to create a vibrant social mix, while company hiring often doesn't. The admissions system even cares about selecting nice people -- believe me, I’ve been to those meetings. Dance clubs don’t.
Glaeser concludes on an encouraging note:
The role that colleges can play in forging lifelong friendships, and even marriages, also makes a deeper point. Princeton has nothing to fear from online learning. The face-to-face experience is just too important, not only as a tool for education but for creating the social relationships that are the real stuff of life.