Marriage data show a strong degree of positive assortative mating along a variety of attributes. But since marriage is an equilibrium outcome, it is unclear whether positive sorting is the result of preferences rather than opportunities. We assess the relative importance of preferences and opportunities in dating behaviour, using unique data from a large commercial speed dating agency. While the speed dating design gives us a direct observation of individual preferences, the random allocation of participants across events generates an exogenous source of variation in opportunities and allows us to identify the role of opportunities separately from that of preferences. We find that both women and men equally value physical attributes, such as age and weight, and that there is positive sorting along age, height, and education. The role of individual preferences, however, is outplayed by that of opportunities. Along some attributes (such as occupation, height and smoking) opportunities explain almost all the estimated variation in demand. Along other attributes (such as age), the role of preferences is more substantial, but never dominant. Despite this, preferences have a part when we observe a match, i.e., when two individuals propose to one another.
Source: “Can Anyone Be “The” One? Evidence on Mate Selection from Speed Dating” from IZA Discussion Papers, number 2377.
Actually, it’s even more extreme than that. In his book, The Logic of Life, Tim Harford quotes the author of the study, Marco Francesconi, as saying it’s:
…98 percent a response…to market conditions and just 2 percent immutable desires. Proposals to date tall, short, fat, thin, professional, clerical, educated, uneducated people are all more than nine-tenths governed by what’s on offer that night. In the battle between the cynics and the romantics, the cynics win hands down.
Who you propose a date to is largely a function of who happens to be sitting in front of you.
Believers in “soulmates” and those already married may find some solace in the final line of the above abstract:
Despite this, preferences have a part when we observe a match, i.e., when two individuals propose to one another.
That’s heartening, right? Nope. As Harford explains, we may be pickier with who we choose to marry but:
…we choose our first dates from among the people we meet, and we choose our marriage partners from among the people we’ve been on dates with.
So yes, we’re pickier about marriage partners but we’re drawing them from the same pool that we rather indiscriminately assembled in the first place.