Better Dating Decisions Through Game Theory

Is there a science to making better dating decisions?

It’s 5.30pm on Friday night, and you have a date for 8pm. You’re really eager to spend time with this new guy you’ve met. He says he’s made a reservation at the hottest new restaurant in town, and you’ve been anticipating this since Monday when you agreed to go out with him. It’s the highlight of your long week.

You arrive home, put down your handbag and take off your jacket, wondering whether you’re going to wear that red off-the-shoulder number or the more subdued black dress. And shoes – which shoes… when the ringing of your phone interrupts your train of thought. It’s him. He says his boss called him in to help prepare for tomorrow’s client presentation. He cancels on you.

What’s the Right Thing to Do?

If you’ve ever dated, something like this has happened whether you’re male or female. People cancel at the last minute, change their minds, break promises, don’t show up, behave strangely, antagonize you capriciously, get moody, and ruin an otherwise perfectly nice evening.

If that were all they did, your course of action would be clear: move on, and move into a monastery. Unfortunately, those same people who behave strangely have also been known to make you happy by showing interest, showing up, and showing you a great time.

This complexity is what renders dating such a challenge. For example, in the scenario above, here are two of your potential responses to the cancellation:

Get righteously indignant. He’s cancelled at the last minute, leaving you high and dry, so you’d be fully justified. However, if you like him, he may not ask you out again if you chew him out.

Let it slide. Well, these things come up, so hey – no problem! You totally understand. But if you do that, would you be setting a precedent for allowing him to cancel again with impunity? You do want to give him a second chance without being a complete doormat. And your best friend introduced him to you, so just being nasty to him won’t do.

Which option is better? This is not a trivial question, and researchers like David Buss claim that the human brain evolved to its current gargantuan size mostly to figure out complex social questions like this.

A Solution Provided by Game Theory

I like elegant, simple solutions to complex problems, which is why I’ve based The Tao of Dating for Women (and Men) on peer-reviewed science and Eastern wisdom. That way, you have reliable strategies that you can use over and over again, knowing that they give you consistently good results.

One such strategy applicable to our scenario (and actually all human interaction) comes from game theory. A game is any situation in which you make decisions that affect other players. So in dating, even when you think you’re not playing games, by definition you are. In fact, any extended social interaction is a combination of many games over time.

A particular kind of game called the iterated prisoner’s dilemma bears particular relevance to dating. Without getting into the intricacies of this game, I just want you to know that each player in the game has a choice to either cooperate or defect – basically, to be nice or nasty. Not so surprisingly, cooperation (aka being nice) is the more effective long-term strategy (with a caveat that we’ll discuss).

In his 1984 book The Evolution of Cooperation, political scientist Robert Axelrod reported on the success of various long-term strategies when pitted against one another. He came up with some interesting findings on the nature of cooperation, one set of which I’ll summarize as the four Axelrod Criteria. They should hold you in good stead in dating, business, friendship, family dynamics and the odd international treaty negotiation:

1. Be nice.
Start by cooperating, not defecting. This generally means saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’. You continue to cooperate until the other person defects, at which point you need to…

2. Be provocable.
Once the other person defects, you defect, too. Your strategy is basically to do whatever the other person did in the last round. This means if the other person starts being nice again, you need to…

3. Be forgiving.
That’s right. If the other person switches back to cooperating, you start cooperating, too, and continue to do so unless provoked.

4. Be straightforward.
You’re already playing a game, so let’s not needlessly complicate matters by playing games within the game. Don’t get greedy, selfish, vindictive, or tricky just to get ahead a little. Play straight.

Life isn’t as cut-and-dried as a computer simulation, so here are some suggestions for applying this to your love life:

If you think you’re too nice, then you should be more provocable. In the example above, this does not mean that you should set up another date and then cancel on the last minute – that just increases the total storehouse of pain in the world. It means you should get provoked now while expressing yourself clearly and elegantly.

For example, in the scenario above, you sould say something like this:
“I understand that something came up – these things happen.” You’re being compassionate and understanding. Nice, even.

“However, I had set aside this time for us and I’m really disappointed that you cancelled without enough time for me to make alternate plans for a Friday night.” Now you’re demonstrating that you’ve been provoked.

“So, if you’re interested in seeing me again, you should let me know how you’d like to make this up to me, and I’d be happy to spend time with you again.” You’re being forgiving and straightforward.

If you tend to err on the side of meanness, practice being more forgiving. Don’t dock people forever – be provoked only in response to provocation. You don’t want to shut the door on a potentially great relationship because of just one slip-up. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

If you tend towards passive-aggressive game playing, stop that immediately. Love is plenty complicated as it is – why make it harder for yourselves? Avoid petty drama and communicate your feelings and wishes clearly. Be straightforward.

As much as some of us would like to think it’s true, it’s not possible to reduce all of life and love to a solvable mathematical game. However, the four Axelrod Criteria of being nice, provocable, forgiving and straightforward will hold you in good stead in many difficult decisions.

Looking for more brilliant advice like this? Can’t blame ya. Get the books The Tao of Dating for Women and The Tao of Dating for Men, the dating bibles for smart folks
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6 Comments on “Better Dating Decisions Through Game Theory”

  1. Jacqueline

    I don’t like game playing, but if we must, and we must at times or at least be aware of them and try to find people that have our best interests at heart, and are open, loving, mature communicators. I love this plan I wish I had thought of it before, it’s happened 1000 times to me and probably everyone I know in the city, but depending on the situation I might word this differently. I don’t think I could say “you should let me know how you’d like to make this up to me, ” I might have to say “IF you want to make this up to me and let me know how you plan too”. I don’t like to fight, and some people may get defensive when the hear the words “You should do this or that for me” or it could leave them going along but feeling resentful even if they admit in their hearts you are right but maybe I’m just a softee and need to be more like this. It depends on a lot of factors I guess, if it’s a friend or a date and how much I’d like to get along with that person. Thank you for this amazing look and answer on what to do the next time this happens I never knew how to handle this and yet even my grown kids do this to me and each other. It’s such a common place issue.

  2. TC

    Thanks for this. I know precious little about game theory!

    Although my inclination would be to say, “Oh, nuts, I was looking forward to our date! It wouldnt be the same without you, of course, but do you mind if I go ahead and use the reservation you made? I’ve got this great dress, and my friend Marci from work …”

  3. Barbara

    Dr. Ali,

    “Once the other person defects, you defect, too. Your strategy is basically to do whatever the other person did in the last round. This means if the other person starts being nice again, you need to…”


    Seems others will “step on our toes,” at some time or another, it’s inevitable.

    But I never knew how to avoid coming across as “too nice” during these incidents.

    Now, I have a strategy!

  4. Marie

    Ah this brought back some bad memories for me…I had a date scheduled with a guy I had previously dated and was looking SO much forward to. Then he canceled last minute, and I was so disappointed and angry that I didn’t respond. At all. That was the last contact we ever had and I still miss him.