Stop Search, Commit

Date after date after date—at some point, getting free dinner got tiresome. Subconsciously, I had decided to stop my search.

“There are a million people in the bar or house party. You can’t talk to them all, so you’ve got to figure out who to go for first. This is our best way to recommend that.”

CTO of OKCUPID

I wasn’t sure what caused what: my stopping point or the arrival of the options. Too many options. Even if I met one each day, I’d have my dance card booked solid for the next three months, but even then, how can one date really be a valid assessment? I might be in a bad mood or feel fat or dislike the group of men standing next to us at the bar—and, subconsciously, come to associate my date with those things that have nothing to do with him whatsoever. I might dislike his shirt because it reminds me of some curtains in my grandparent’s house. Or, I might dislike my shirt and convince myself that he’s looking at it and judging me negatively, causing me to unknowingly respond in a way confirming my fears and beliefs.

I decided to make an honest effort this time. I’d read that “The more committed a person is to an intimate relationship, the more likely it is that the relationship will last,” so I did things indicative of my willingness to not stray.1John E. Lydon, Sara K. Quinn. “Relationship Maintenance Processes,” in The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships, edited by Jeffry Simpson and Lorne Campbell. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013.) I could be myself around him, so it didn’t feel seem like a commitment would require sacrifice because we were already on the same page about so many things. And after I decided to put my heart into it and decided to prioritize the development and maintenance of the relationship, I noticed that I wasn’t interested in signing into my account.[2]2R.S. Miller. “Inattentive and Contented: Relationship Commitment and Attention to Alternatives.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 (1997): 758-766. D.J. Johnson and C.E. Rusbult. “Resisting Temptation: Devaluation of Alternative Partners as a Means of Maintaining Commitment in Close Relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1989): 967-980. Meghan L. Meyer, Elliot T. Berkman, Johan C. Karremans, and Matthew D. Lieberman. “Incidental Regulation of Attraction: The Neural Basis of the Derogation of Attractive Alternatives in Romantic Relationships.” Cognition and Emotion 25, no. 3 (2011): 490-505.

I also knew that one of my favorite researchers, Jim Uleman, had told me “Life is a crapshoot,” when it came to the inferences that we’re always making about others.
I did not message the entrepreneur with the omnipresent pukka necklace. Or the short attorney or the Muslim comedian. I realize now that I went for tall, dark, and handsome because all my life, from every possible avenue, I’ve been getting social cues that those are signs of a good mate. Because I had learned that those things were rewarding by observing the choices of others, I liked those things, and I wanted them. Because we cannot assess someone’s personality or promise based on a profile photo or resumé, so our eyes gravitate towards Quickly and Easily Assessed characteristics that are predictive of rewards.

I went for the Pulitzer and the Yale Ph.D. because those positive associations jumped out at me, serving as third-party quality signals reducing uncertainty about their capacities and claims.3e.g. Scott D. Graffin and Andrew J. Ward. “Certifications and Reputation: Determining the Standard of Desirability Amidst Uncertainty.” Organization Science 21, No. 2 (March–April 2010): 331–346.

Because, in line with self-expansion theory, I would come to identify their resources as my resources, and subconsciously I wanted someone with a high capacity for self-regulation known for academic accomplishment. I liked the idea of an association with a well-regarded and intellectually challenging organization—something I wanted for myself but never really attempted, because those kinds of things didn’t happen to people from poor backgrounds like me (low self-efficacy moderated by compromised social trust). I wanted validation. Something secure. I took these scant pieces of information about the men and colored in the rest of my perceptions of them based on whatever was floating around in my head at the time. I liked them already, because they contacted me (reciprocity of attraction effect), and now I was approaching them, and there is power in approach.4Eli J. Finkel and Paul W. Eastwick. “Arbitrary Social Norms Influence Sex Differences in Romantic Selectivity.” Psychological Science (2009).

Besides, my mother and roommates would swoon. My friends would be jealous. I went for these men because going for them just felt right and the universe sent me no signs indicating otherwise.

Plus they looked so good on my computer screen.

At no point during this process did I get any objective feedback; there was no animated heart-shaped paperclip on OkCupid that lit up “Hello! I noticed you’re responding to a limerick written by a younger man” when I started typing. There was no objective feedback because no such thing exists in a social world. We get internal feedback, which is really just a collection of patterns built from our past, and we get external feedback from our social network. We arrive at our core self-evaluations and expectations about how the world works based on a lifetime of interactions with others. We like people who agree with us and share our social reality. We are drawn to people who can help us get to where we want to go, even if that just means having someone to stand next to and see the same world that you do.

They may not have even been presenting themselves objectively. I mean, who does? Online dating represents a total reversal from mating rituals of the past, in which one’s interdependence to another was based on the configurations of their social networks. There is no usage of uncertainty reduction principles, no eBay-like method of reputation management, no reviews from former lovers. I had no friends or family members with skin in the game, vouching for their quality. We had no common acquaintances whose mere presence would hold them accountable for their future actions. From the largest dating website in the U.S. facilitating the most important decision of our lives – finding a suitable mate – there are no security measures to verify one’s identity. So we choose the cutest photos of ourselves and put up the highlight reel of our lives. We engage in impression management when we put on a public face, which is why everyone’s lives look perfect online, but in truth we’re not always standing in front of Macchu Picchu or decreasing customer complaints by 35% or publishing articles on hardening system architecture in technical journals.

“There was no Ph.D. input into it at all.”

CTO of OKCUPID, explaining their matching algorithm

So I knew that there was no objective way to evaluate the men in terms of their potential quality as a mate. And even if there was, I didn’t want to send them a test. They would flee. I could then understand the predicament of the typical hiring manager: candidates who rated a 6 and thought that I was an 8 would probably be willing to take the test. But I didn’t want to scare off the best possible candidates, and if I gave these guys a test (or the hiring version: asking them to come in to work a day, for example), they probably wouldn’t take the bait, since that’s just not how it’s done around here. We don’t trust those who veer from social norms.

Besides, I wasn’t Google, guaranteed of getting résumés of this caliber forever. I was a 33-year-old female on the verge of turning 34, and the double standard for aging is persistent, a holdover from when men had time to conquer the earth and chose the youngest, most fertile woman they could, which prevented women from establishing much of a career beyond raising the family.5Paula England and Elizabeth Aura Mcclintock. “The Gendered Double Standard of Aging in US Marriage Markets.” Population and Development Review 35, no. 4 (2009): 797 – 816. In guy terms, I felt like I was a 5’10” accountant about to wake up as a trash collector measuring 5’7”.

It is better—in terms of long-term reproductive output—to mate with the last person on the island (by finding him or her “attractive enough”) than not to mate at all.

Alison P. Lenton, Lars Penke, Peter M. Todd, and Barbara Fasolo. “The Heart Has Its Reasons: Social Rationality in Mate Choice” in Simple Heuristics in a Social World, edited by Ralph Hertwig, Ulrich Hoffrage, and the ABC Research Group. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.)

Thirty-three years old. An age that seemed a common line drawn in the sand by men of many ages. By the divorced ones with kids who didn’t want more kids. The never-marrieds indifferent to breeding. Young ovaries are like tall men, an ideal baked into our brains by evolution that has nothing to do with the quality of relationship itself, a status signal reinforced by social norms.6Edmund T. Rolls. “Sexual Behaviour, Reward, and Brain Function; Sexual Selection of Behaviour” in Emotion Explained. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.) A trait one could not hide. I was angry that guys were judging my desirability based on this — all while judging guys based on the reciprocal, meaningless quality, simply because it was a visible filtering mechanism baked into my brain by evolution and ambient, omnipresent signals. I was bemoaning superficiality while being superficial.

Many a single woman of thirty-five and over is left “on the shelf” because of the overwhelming cultural conditioning of men towards a younger woman, when in actual fact the older woman would make a better wife.7M.B. Smith. The Single Woman of Today: Her Problems and Adjustment. (Published New York: Philosophical Library, 1952; copyright 1951 by C.A. Watts and Co. Ltd): 58-59.

In the absence of other strategies with which to assess these men—and because I didn’t want to spend three more months going on first dates; I was getting tired of telling the same life stories about how I ended up at that bar swapping life stories—I chose these two guys based on their looks, our match percentage (salient rewards), and a perceived fit with my core life values (reading, industriousness, travel, whiskey). Like the judges at the tattoo convention, I went for what loomed largest in my mind and seemed most promising when the time came; like the casting agent, I did what felt right, my decision guided by unknown forces of pattern recognition (the it just felt right/I knew it when I saw it/I can’t explain it heuristic) and at no point did anyone tell me otherwise. I did these things and made these inferences on the basis of what I learned over the years spent researching this book, with an unironic dog-eared copy of The Handbook of Relationship Initiation lying on my desk right next to me as I messaged them back with aplomb, because when you are writing a book about choosing people and being chosen while actually choosing people and being chosen for the first time in years, eventually instinct takes over and you just roll up your sleeves and do your thing.

Here is why finding a mate is difficult, more so than a leader or actor: dating is not a matter of unidirectional choice like shopping, but a bilateral decision in which both parties in the market must want the same thing from each other. Hiring decisions typically require one date, and no one flinches because no one assumes that job to last for the rest of your life. But even though we might go for the obvious or easy choice for figuring out who to grab a drink with on a Tuesday afternoon, we’re willing to draw out the mutual evaluation process known as assortative matching, or dating, because we still expect and hope that those choices, when we make them, will last the rest of our lives.

Another way to tell the story is that I went on lots of dates and stopped searching when I found someone I really liked.

I liked this new guy because he was 29. When I was 29, I got married for the wrong reason8Shelly L. Gable and Emily A. Impett. “Approach and Avoidance Motives and Close Relationships.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6, no. 1 (2012): 95–108. “Personality and Relationships: A Temperament Perspective” in Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. (Cambridge, UK.) Shelly L. Gable, Thery Prok. “Avoiding the Pitfalls and Approaching the Promises of Close Relationships” in The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation, edited by Richard M. Ryan. (Oxford, UK.): not because I got excited by the idea of imagining our lives together, but because I hated the idea of losing the relationship (prevention focus; low self-efficacy; low self-perceived mate value). My family took one look at him, asked if he had any children from a previous marriage, and told me good job (social learning; low self-perceived mate value). I’d invested so much in our marriage (investment theory of commitment), and couldn’t break away until I saw that it wouldn’t improve. Not until I spoke with the matchmaker, asked if he was willing to work on what wasn’t working, and heard the word “no.” Subconsciously I longed to be 29 again and pretend like those last few years just never happened.

I liked him because when we met he had a book, he always carried a book whenever we met, and learning about people is a simple cognitive process in which we make associations between things of known value (books: positive) and things of unknown value (this guy: ?). I liked him because I had a coffee when we met (physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth9L.E. Williams and John A Bargh. “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth.” Science 322 (2008): 606–607.) and then moved on to whiskey and he kissed me on our first date (lack of ambiguity). I liked him because we communicated similarly (language style matching10Molly E. Ireland, Richard B. Slatcher, Paul W. Eastwick, Lauren E. Scissors, Eli J. Finkel and James W. Pennebaker. “Language Style Matching Predicts Relationship Initiation and Stability.” Psychological Science 22, no. 1 (2011): 39-44.), and he also loved the idea of reading late at night, glass of wine in hand. I liked him because his nuclear family looked perfect on paper, a pair of doctors and brothers and a ranch out west, because in time I would view that family as my own11Arthur Aron, Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Debra Mashek, and Elaine N. Aron. “The Self-Expansion Model of Motivation and Cognition in Close Relationships” in The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships, edited by Jeffry Simpson and Lorne Campbell. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013): 90-115., because my dad left when I was young and just once I longed to be part of an intact nuclear family. I was envious of his past and future. I was envious of his life, and wanted to incorporate his resources into my own (self-expansion theory).

But I liked him, mostly, because he was one of the hardest workers I had ever met. Because of the fundamental human need to coexist with others and live safely in groups, we’re unknowingly affected by those around us, influenced by what role they play in our lives, the thoughts they bring to mind, the patterns we detect and the people they remind us of. We adopt the goals, behaviors, speech patterns, body language, and social norms of others without even thinking about it,12Henk Aarts and Ran R. Hassin. “Automatic Goal Inference and Contagion: On Pursuing Goals One Perceives in Other People’s Behavior” in Social Motivation: Conscious and Unconscious Processes, edited by Joseph P. Forgas, Kipling D. Williams, and Simon M. Laham. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, TK): 153-167. without even being aware of our influences or needs, without realizing that someone’s hand gestures might remind you of the hand gestures of someone you hated in high school, activating that social knowledge without your awareness. No algorithm will ever be able to divine chemistry.

And the car accident I was in a decade ago compromised my ability to focus and stay on task—to engage in self-control—even though it hadn’t changed the fact that I have more Striatal D2 receptors, that I am a gritty “go” learner. Traumatic brain injury impairs people’s ability to engage in long-term planning.13cf. Robert J. Sternberg and Karin Sternberg. Cognitive Psychology, Sixth Edition. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012): 466. Today you can make out the outline of my skull fracture, the crevases over my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, making it harder for me to engage in self-control. So to achieve the balance and homeostasis that all organisms seek and become closer to my ideal self, I’m attracted to those who push me to achieve because of these lapsed and forgotten promises from my youth.14Caryl E. Rusbult et al. “‘The Part of Me That You Bring Out’: Ideal Similarity and the Michelangelo Phenomenon.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, no. 1 (2009): 61-82. Growing up poor had battered my sense of social trust and confidence in common causality and left me occasionally listless in the face of uncertainty in the future. I liked who I was when I was around him. I wanted to feel accepted for staying in on a Friday to work, and here was someone else doing the same thing. I stopped my endless research and interviewing and began the process of actually drafting this book. I wanted to complete my goal of completing this book by the deadline. Being near him made that climbing that hill feel effortless.
He was brilliant, but more importantly he was confident and ambitious, and a high core self-evaluation is the most indicative barometer for someone’s future. We like confidence because we interpret it as both cause and effect of getting things done; overconfidence is the human equivalent of oversized antlers, and we defer to it because we know that others do, too. And why shouldn’t he have been confident? He’d had a lifetime of having people say yes to him, of getting picked, getting what he wanted, seeing positive images of people who look like him and his ingroup. There were few doors that he could not enter in the world, an ambient sense of belonging wherever he went.

I didn’t know these things when I messaged him, I just had a good feeling. He was responsive, but intermittently so; my phone felt like a slot machine, a message from him my jackpot, and the allure of that uncertain payoff kept me on my toes.

All of these reasons escaped explicit or conscious awareness but resurfaced as a sense of liking. Maybe I seemed irrational. Maybe I was. But when examined on that deeper level, there is always a method to our madness, a sense of risk aversion and pattern recognition forged by personal experiences.15Douglas T. Kenrick et al. “Deep Rationality: The Evolutionary Economics of Decision Making.” Draft of paper for Social Cognition Special Issue on Rationality Debate. January 15, 2008. We may not even be aware of the goals or reasons that lead us to have motives for reaching certain conclusions. But if it feels like the right answer and no one is telling us that we’re wrong, we move forward until there is evidence of our wrongness that is impossible to ignore.

The people we choose to have in our lives can turn us into better versions of ourselves, take weight off of our shoulders, and make the world a friendlier, more manageable place, just by being there. But as we get closer to others and reveal and invest more of who we are, we also open ourselves up to life’s greatest sources of pain: rejection, conflict, humiliation, manipulation, envy, jealousy, or being proven wrong and having to question our fundamental idea of how the world works. It’s the inherent porcupine problem of being human, balancing our need to huddle with each other for survival against the potential of being harmed by another’s quills. Choosing someone requires us to prioritize one universal goal over another, placing our desire for affiliation above the more fundamental need for self-protection.16Joanne V. Wood and Amanda L. Forest. “Seeking Pleasure and Avoiding Pain in Interpersonal Relationships” in Handbook of Self-Enhancement and Self-Protection, edited by Mark D. Alicke and Constantine Sedikides. (New York: The Guilford Press, 2011): 258-278.

So I did, without realizing that my goal of staying with him was incompatible with his superordinate goal of focusing on getting a tenure-track position.

In the end, the guy from Yale broke my heart.

And I never saw it coming.


  • 1
    John E. Lydon, Sara K. Quinn. “Relationship Maintenance Processes,” in The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships, edited by Jeffry Simpson and Lorne Campbell. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013.)
  • 2
    R.S. Miller. “Inattentive and Contented: Relationship Commitment and Attention to Alternatives.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 (1997): 758-766. D.J. Johnson and C.E. Rusbult. “Resisting Temptation: Devaluation of Alternative Partners as a Means of Maintaining Commitment in Close Relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1989): 967-980. Meghan L. Meyer, Elliot T. Berkman, Johan C. Karremans, and Matthew D. Lieberman. “Incidental Regulation of Attraction: The Neural Basis of the Derogation of Attractive Alternatives in Romantic Relationships.” Cognition and Emotion 25, no. 3 (2011): 490-505.
  • 3
    e.g. Scott D. Graffin and Andrew J. Ward. “Certifications and Reputation: Determining the Standard of Desirability Amidst Uncertainty.” Organization Science 21, No. 2 (March–April 2010): 331–346.
  • 4
    Eli J. Finkel and Paul W. Eastwick. “Arbitrary Social Norms Influence Sex Differences in Romantic Selectivity.” Psychological Science (2009).
  • 5
    Paula England and Elizabeth Aura Mcclintock. “The Gendered Double Standard of Aging in US Marriage Markets.” Population and Development Review 35, no. 4 (2009): 797 – 816.
  • 6
    Edmund T. Rolls. “Sexual Behaviour, Reward, and Brain Function; Sexual Selection of Behaviour” in Emotion Explained. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.)
  • 7
    M.B. Smith. The Single Woman of Today: Her Problems and Adjustment. (Published New York: Philosophical Library, 1952; copyright 1951 by C.A. Watts and Co. Ltd): 58-59.
  • 8
    Shelly L. Gable and Emily A. Impett. “Approach and Avoidance Motives and Close Relationships.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6, no. 1 (2012): 95–108. “Personality and Relationships: A Temperament Perspective” in Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. (Cambridge, UK.) Shelly L. Gable, Thery Prok. “Avoiding the Pitfalls and Approaching the Promises of Close Relationships” in The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation, edited by Richard M. Ryan. (Oxford, UK.)
  • 9
    L.E. Williams and John A Bargh. “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth.” Science 322 (2008): 606–607.
  • 10
    Molly E. Ireland, Richard B. Slatcher, Paul W. Eastwick, Lauren E. Scissors, Eli J. Finkel and James W. Pennebaker. “Language Style Matching Predicts Relationship Initiation and Stability.” Psychological Science 22, no. 1 (2011): 39-44.
  • 11
    Arthur Aron, Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Debra Mashek, and Elaine N. Aron. “The Self-Expansion Model of Motivation and Cognition in Close Relationships” in The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships, edited by Jeffry Simpson and Lorne Campbell. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013): 90-115.
  • 12
    Henk Aarts and Ran R. Hassin. “Automatic Goal Inference and Contagion: On Pursuing Goals One Perceives in Other People’s Behavior” in Social Motivation: Conscious and Unconscious Processes, edited by Joseph P. Forgas, Kipling D. Williams, and Simon M. Laham. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, TK): 153-167.
  • 13
    cf. Robert J. Sternberg and Karin Sternberg. Cognitive Psychology, Sixth Edition. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012): 466.
  • 14
    Caryl E. Rusbult et al. “‘The Part of Me That You Bring Out’: Ideal Similarity and the Michelangelo Phenomenon.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, no. 1 (2009): 61-82.
  • 15
    Douglas T. Kenrick et al. “Deep Rationality: The Evolutionary Economics of Decision Making.” Draft of paper for Social Cognition Special Issue on Rationality Debate. January 15, 2008.
  • 16
    Joanne V. Wood and Amanda L. Forest. “Seeking Pleasure and Avoiding Pain in Interpersonal Relationships” in Handbook of Self-Enhancement and Self-Protection, edited by Mark D. Alicke and Constantine Sedikides. (New York: The Guilford Press, 2011): 258-278.





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