As a rule, if you are looking for bad dating advice, you should ask an ideologue. Someone who believes that reality is what he thinks it will invariably give you bad advice. I will not tell you which kind of ideologue will give you the worst dating advice, because you know already.
Now, competing with the ideologues are the psycho-scientists. Practitioners of the new science of behavioral economics want to encourage, seduce or nudge people into doing what they want them to do. You see, great minds are convinced that they know better than the common man or woman, and certainly better than you.
It looks like science, but it more closely resembles moral philosophy. Science, as David Hume famously remarked, is about what is. Ethics is about what you should do. The two are not even remotely the same.
Several years back, Duke University’s Dan Ariely, a master in the field of behavioral economics, offered up some dating advice. He observed the way people normally behave on first dates and pronounced it to be insufficient and inadequate. You would have expected that a scientist would try to understand why people do as they do. Instead, Ariely dismissed it because he found it to be less likely to produce an immediate passionate attachment. This assumes, of course, that two strangers who meet at random want to have a passionate attachment, immediate or eventual.
Ariely describes the way first daters normally behave:
When going on a first date, we try to achieve a delicate balance between expressing ourselves, learning about the other person, but also not offending anyone — favoring friendly over controversial – even at the risk of sounding dull. This approach might be best exemplified by an amusing quote from the film Best in Show: “We have so much in common, we both love soup and snow peas, we love the outdoors, and talking and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.”
In the real world, first daters, the ones who have not been influenced by psycho-science follow a strategy that I have occasionally recommended, one that I consider to be sensible and normal. For some recent comments see Sunday’s post: In Praise of Small Talk.
According to the small talk strategy two people on a first date try to get to know each other; they collect relevant information about each other; they try to find out what they have in common; and they respect each other’s privacy.
Sometimes they choose to continue to date and sometimes they prefer to look elsewhere. Note well, in more than a few cases, cases that cannot be quantified by the methods of behavioral economics, people who meet at random might choose to continue to date or not based on other factors, factors that are generally subsumed under the category of chemistry. It has certainly happened that the face and the profile that you find irresistible online turns out to be someone you find viscerally unappealing.
Without knowing whether there is or is not chemistry, without knowing how much these people really have in common, we cannot know whether their strategy is productive or useless.
We will add that people who are serial daters or who have had multiple relationships or who are meeting someone they met on a dating site, tend to be more cautious about getting involved. This caution is certainly warranted.
Obviously, you would be more upfront with someone you had known from the neighborhood or who had been vetted by your parents. In that case you would not need to ask informational questions because you would know the answers already.
Ariely bemoans the fact that normal dating strategies do not guarantee a stimulating conversation. And yet, sometimes people do not want a stimulating conversation. They want to establish common ground and want to avoid getting involved in a drama. They believe that showing respect is better than being rude and intrusive. They know, as Ariely does not seem to know, that a relationship that begins with drama is likely to continue as drama.
And, in many cases when people date serially they often know at first glance that they do not want to date the other person. For all I know they are just being polite. One does not understand why this offends behavioral economists, but, it does.
In Ariely’s words:
Basically, in an attempt to coordinate on the right dating strategy, we stick to universally shared interests like food or the weather. It’s easy to talk about our views on mushroom and anchovies, and the topic arises easily over dinner at a pizzeria – still, that doesn’t guarantee a stimulating conversation, and certainly not a real measure of our long-term romantic match.
The psycho-scientists want us all to be less boring. This is not a scientific value; it is effectively an aesthetic disguised as an ethic. When your life as a couple is well-organized and well routinized it often looks boring. And yet, if you disorganize your life you will have much more Sturm und Drang- it’s easy to do—but you will also be wasting time and energy on constant drama.
If that’s what you need to be stimulated, be my guest. If you think that that will form the basis for a good relationship, you are wrong.
Ariely studies the problem by examining written conversations, conversations where you would show even more caution than you would in a face-to-face conversation. He finds them to be boring. Again, by whose standards are they being judged boring? And perhaps the people do not want to be more than boring.
And we found a general trend supporting the idea that people like to maintain boring equilibrium at all costs: we found a lot of people who may, in actuality, have interesting things to say, but presented themselves as utterly insipid in their written conversations. The dialogue was boring, consisting mainly of questions like, “Where did you go to college?” or “What are your hobbies?” “What is your line of work?” etc.
One feels somewhat dismayed to see that today’s youth think that it’s normal to interrogate each other on dates. At times these interrogations border on inquisitions. Some of the questions are normal and anodyne, necessary information you would want to have before getting involved with anyone. Others are intrusive, invasive and disrespectful.
Isn’t it possible to have a conversation without using a question and answer format? It is always more blessed to give than to take. And if you offer information about yourself you allow the other person the freedom to choose what to divulge in return.
In order to solve a problem that may not even be a problem, Ariely decided that life would be more passionate if psycho-scientists could script the conversations. Note well, the students who would be participating in this experiment would really be playing by a partial script. So much for spontaneity and for having the freedom to conduct your first date as you wish.
Obviously, the psycho-scientists were correct to note that if you fill a conversation with intrusive and insulting questions, the kinds of questions that any normally constituted adult would know better than to ask, things would become more emotional. Ariely called them interesting and personally revealing, but they are rude and insulting.
On the one hand the conversations were not boring, but by whose standards was that to be judged? And, what do we know about the long term outcomes of these forms of insults.
Ariely was thrilled by the results:
The questions we chose had nothing to do with the weather and how many brothers and sisters they have, and instead all the questions were interesting and personally revealing (ie., “how many romantic partners did you have?”, “When was your last breakup?”, “Do you have any STDs?”, “Have you ever broken someone’s heart?”, “How do you feel about abortion?”). Our daters had to choose questions from the list to ask another dater, and could not ask anything else. They were forced to risk it by posing questions that are considered outside of generally accepted bounds. And their partners responded, creating much livelier conversations than we had seen when daters came up with their own questions. Instead of talking about the World Cup or their favorite desserts, they shared their innermost fears or told the story of losing their virginity. Everyone, both sender and replier, was happier with the interaction.
As I have occasionally noted, this type of conversation with a stranger is like having sex with someone you do not know, or sexting a stranger a photo of you, naked with your face covered. Is it more lively than a boring conversation? You bet it is. Does that make it desirable?
It depends on what you are trying to accomplish on the first date. If you prefer to get to know someone before disrobing, thus to exercise some discretion and some judgment about handing out your favors, Ariely would find you boring. If you reverse the process and disrobe before getting to know the person, you will have a less boring story to tell, but you will be compromising your privacy in order to play a role in a psychodrama.
Think about it? Do you think it wise to offer up your sexual history to a stranger? Do you think that you should, on a first date, offer up your medical history, your STDs and abortions to a stranger? What sentient adult would do such a thing, unless he finds his life lacking in cheap thrills.
Anyone with a modicum of sense does not share important private information with a stranger. There are some things about you that the world does not need to know. There are some things about you you’re your closest friends do not need to know. Someone you do not know is not someone you can immediately trust. Before you expose yourself to him and risk exposure to the world, better stick to talking about the weather.