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All the Single Ladies
Men floundering, women most affected
“Oh, he’s kind of cute.” My friend at Yale, swiping through Tinder, leaned over and showed me his profile.
“Wait, no.” She moved her finger leftward.
“Why not? He seems alright,” I reply.
He goes to a local, less highly-regarded university, she explained. In other words, not Yale.1
Swipe Right for a Master’s Degree
The dating market for women is getting tougher. In part, this is because fewer men are attending universities. Why would male enrollment in higher education matter for women? Because women, on average, prefer educated men. One source of evidence comes from women’s personal responses to dating profiles posted by men. Researchers analyzed 120 personal dating ads posted by men on the West Coast and Midwest. They found that two of the strongest variables that predicted how many responses a man received from women were years of education and income. Similar results have been found in Poland. Researchers analyzed how many women responded to dating ads posted by 551 men. They found that men with higher levels of education and higher income received more responses. A more recent study in Australia of more than 40,000 online daters found that women were more likely to initiate contact with a man if he had more education than themselves.
Still, young people today are more likely to use Tinder or other dating apps than Internet dating websites. Are things different on the apps? A study led by economics researcher Brecht Neyt of Ghent University found that, on Tinder, women were 91 percent more likely to “like” a man with a master's degree compared with a bachelor's degree. The researchers used the same male profiles, the only difference was level of education. They also tested how men would react to women with different levels of education, finding that men were only 8 percent more likely to “like” a woman with a master’s degree compared with a bachelor’s degree. Both men and women preferred more educated partners, but women had a much stronger preference.
In other words, all other things equal, a man with a master’s degree is nearly twice as likely to get a match than a man with a bachelor’s degree. Perhaps something to keep in mind, if you are interested in obtaining a graduate degree and active on Tinder.
Some women do marry men with less education, though. These women tend to marry men who earn more than them. A study by Yue Qian, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, found that in marriages where women had more education than their spouses, they were 93 percent more likely to be married to men with higher incomes than themselves. In other words, if you are a less educated man, it is helpful to earn more than your educated male peers if you want to marry an educated woman. Better-educated women have a stronger preference for partners who earn more, especially if their partners are less educated than themselves.
This finding fits the overall pattern revealing that women who are more educated and professionally successful have an even stronger preference for successful male partners, relative to less successful women. The evolutionary psychologist David Buss, discussing his research on how professionally successful women select partners, found that, “Successful women turned out to place an even greater value than less professionally successful women on mates who have professional degrees, high social status, and greater intelligence and who are tall, independent, and self-confident.” The more professionally successful a woman is, the stronger her preference for successful men.
Sex ratios matter for dating strategies for both men and women. Even seemingly small differences in sex ratios can be misleading. For example, in The Evolution of Desire, David Buss discusses the student body of the University of Texas at Austin where he teaches. In 2016, the student body consisted of 46 percent men and 54 percent women. That doesn’t seem like a big difference. But it is. It translates to 17 percent more women than men on campus. The UT Austin campus has about 52,000 students in total. This means that if every student pairs up with someone of the opposite sex, about 4,000 women will be left without a partner.
More to the point, the age range for the Tinder study cited above was 23 to 27. This is the age range in which women are far more educated than men, and where more women tend to be looking for male partners. In his book Date-onomics, Jon Birger revealed that according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are 5.5 million college-educated women between the ages of 22 and 29, versus only 4.1 million college-educated men in the same age bracket. In other words, the dating pool for college graduates has 33 percent more women than men—or 4 women for every 3 men. Broken down by degree type across all ages in the U.S., for every 100 men with bachelor’s degrees, there are 130 women. For those with master’s degrees, for every 100 men there are 134 women. The situation for educated women seeking educated male partners doesn’t look good. Furthermore, more men identify as exclusively homosexual relative to women. Which suggests the dating pool for heterosexual women may be even smaller than the above numbers suggest.
But how do such imbalances manifest themselves with regard to mating strategies? When there is a surplus of men, men are more likely to adapt to women’s preferences. When there is a larger male-to-female ratio, men are more likely to compete with each other to be what women want. And, on average, women tend to prefer longer-term relationships. In general, women report a greater desire for emotional investment than men. This is true across cultures. In fact, the sex disparity in this preference for emotional investment is greater in more egalitarian cultures. In other words, the difference in the desire for love and emotional investment between men and women is larger in societies that more strongly underscore egalitarianism and sociopolitical equality. In contrast, men, on average, are more likely to prefer more casual sexual relationships. Interestingly, the sex difference in the male preference for casual sex and sexual variety is more pronounced in more gender-egalitarian societies. For example, research led by the psychologist David Schmitt found that the sex difference for enjoyment of casual sex in Denmark, Norway, and Finland is larger than in less gender-egalitarian cultures such as Ethiopia, Colombia, and Swaziland.
And we see this on campuses with more male students relative to female students. Jon Birger, in Date-onomics, describes the dating scene on campuses with imbalanced sex ratios. On colleges with more men than women, such as Caltech, steady relationships are more widespread. Students go on dates, and men demonstrate commitment in partnerships. Men are more willing to do what women want in order to be with them. On the other hand, when there is a surplus of women relative to men, women are more likely to adapt to men’s preferences. They compete with one another to be what men want. And this is what we see on campuses with more female students relative to male students. On colleges with more women than men, such as Sarah Lawrence, casual sex is more widespread. Hookup culture is more prevalent, and men are less interested in entering committed relationships. Women are more willing to do what men want in order to be with them.
Birger describes an interview with a female student at Sarah Lawrence:
Most straight men at Sarah Lawrence had no interest in a committed relationship. “Why would they?” she said. “It’s like they have their own free harem. One of my friends was dumped by a guy after they’d been hooking up for less than a week. When he broke up with her, the guy actually used the word ‘market’—like the ‘market’ for him was just too good.”
If you have ever been around young men at elite colleges, many of them do speak in this way, especially if there are less prestigious colleges nearby. This is because male students at top colleges can attract women at their own college, as well as other local campuses. On the other hand, women at top colleges are often only interested in dating men at their own college. For these women, the dating pool is less promising compared to their male counterparts.
Interestingly, women at colleges where women are more numerous trust men less. In a study on campus sex ratios and sexual behavior, researchers analyzed data from 1,000 undergraduate women from different U.S. colleges. Women’s responses varied based on sex ratios on campus. For example, women at colleges with more women were more likely to agree that “men don’t want a committed relationship” and that they “don’t expect much” from the men with whom they go out. They also found that women on campuses with a higher female-to-male ratio were much less likely to report that they had never had sex.
The researchers report that, “women who attend college on campuses where they are more numerous tend to view men as less interested in commitment and less trustworthy. They are less likely to expect much from men, find it more difficult to locate the right kind of men, and are more likely to report that their relationships don’t work out and that a woman can’t have a boyfriend if she won’t have sex.” In other words, when men are in an environment where there are more women, they appear to put in less effort, and have less interest in relationships.
In contrast, in environments where men are more numerous, relationships are more likely to proliferate. The Harvard psychologist Marcia Guttentag and her colleague Paul Secord examined Census numbers, data on sex ratios, and historical texts dating back to ancient Greece and medieval Europe. She found that in societies where men were more numerous relative to women, the culture was more likely to stress courtship and romance. Men had to compete for wives and were thus more willing to make commitments to women. While women in such societies were more likely to be cast in stereotypical gender roles, they also, Guttentag reports, exercised greater control in their choice of romantic partner. She found that the opposite was the case in societies with more women than men. She writes, “The outstanding characteristic of times when women were in oversupply would be that men would not remain committed to the same woman throughout her childbearing years.”
Intriguingly, Guttentag posits that feminist movements are energized when there is a dearth of men in the local environment:
“With a surplus of women, sexual freedoms are more advantageous to men than to women. Decreased willingness to commit oneself to an exclusive relationship with one woman is consistent with that fact… It follows further that the persistence of such circumstances would leave many women hurt and angry. Other women, not themselves without a man, would nevertheless often be aware of the unfortunate experiences of their women friends in relations with men. These circumstances should impel women to seek more power, and incidentally, turn them towards meeting their own needs. Most forms of feminism are directed to just such ends.”
In short, environments with more women give rise to conditions that propel women to reduce their social, economic and political dependence on men. In part because men are less interested in commitment when they are outnumbered by women and therefore have more options.
Still, much of this is assuming that men in educated dating pools prefer educated women. And for long-term relationships, they do. Compared with women, though, men tend to be more open to pairing up with less educated partners. And less educated women tend to be open to dating men more educated than themselves. What this means, then, is that educated women are not only competing against other educated women for educated male partners, but also against less educated women. To use Guttentag’s phrasing, the dating environment for educated men has an oversupply of women, and they are acting in line with Guttentag’s original findings. As Birger puts it in Date-onomics, describing why educated men are often reluctant to settle down, “Why make a lifetime commitment to one woman when you can keep her as an option while continuing to survey the market—a market that, for college-educated men, has an ever-increasing number of options?” This point has also been stressed by David Buss. In an essay titled The Mating Crisis Among Educated Women, Buss observes that it is no coincidence that the rise of hookup culture on college campuses has developed alongside the growing proportion of female students. Even Tinder, he suggests, is a part of the same phenomenon. Fewer desirable men translates into more hookups.
Why Don’t You Get a Job?
Other factors don’t bode well for long-term relationships. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 80 percent of never-married women, compared with less than half of never-married men, report that having a partner with a steady job is “very important” to them. Employed men are more attractive to women. And given that successful women tend to value success in prospective partners even more than less successful women, it stands to reason that employed women place an even greater value on employment when selecting a partner. However, Pew has also found that among never-married adults, for every 100 women, there are only 84 employed men. If all employed men were suddenly taken, every sixth woman would be partner-less.
Why does any of this matter? Maybe relationships aren’t that important, and people can derive happiness from other things, like career success. But consider recent research led by Nathan Kettlewell at the Economics Discipline Group at the University of Technology Sydney. Kettlewell and his colleagues found that when it comes to cognitive and emotional well-being, job-related events such as getting a promotion or being fired doesn’t actually have much impact beyond about 3 months. What does impact well-being? Negative factors on well-being were the death of a partner or child, separation or divorce, and major financial loss (e.g., bankruptcy). Positive factors were getting married, having children, and a major financial gain (e.g., inheritance or lottery winnings). Considering that few of us are going to inherit money from a rich uncle or win the Powerball, establishing a relationship with people we love is key to our sense of well-being.
Why are men falling behind when it comes to education? Several suggestions have been offered. One might be video games. In a paper titled “Cutting class to play video games,” the economist Michael Ward looked at a dataset of more than 6,000 high school and college students. He found that when video game sales increase, students spend less time attending class and doing homework and more time playing games. Furthermore, this “crowding out” effect was stronger for males and lower income students. He also found that the average amount of time spent playing video games was three times larger for males compared to females.
The economist Erik Hurst has suggested that leisure time has become so valuable to men that they are less willing to exchange that time for other pursuits. In an interview, Hurst has said, “In our culture, where we are constantly connected to technology, activities like playing Xbox, browsing social media, and Snapchatting with friends raise the attractiveness of leisure time. And so it goes that if leisure time is more enjoyable, and as prices for these technologies continue to drop, people may be less willing to work at any given wage.” This may be why fewer young men, relative to women, are employed or attending university.
Furthermore, Hurst and his colleagues found that from 2000 to 2015, labor hours fell by 12 percent for those aged 21–30. What has filled this free time for men? The researchers found that young men increased the number of hours dedicated to leisure by about the same number of labor hours they lost. And what kind of leisure? An article in The Economist reports, “For each hour less the group spent in work, time spent at leisure activities rose about an hour, and 75% of the increased leisure time was accounted for by gaming.” Video games might be more appealing than other ventures, and many young men have decided to dedicate more of their time to gaming and less to education or work. Interestingly, these young men do not report being unhappy. Hurst goes on to say, “These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they quite content compared to their peers.” However, the men surveyed are quite young. It is possible and perhaps likely that as these men reach middle-age, their feelings will change.
For now, many young men understand that women want educated and successful partners. Why not work harder to adapt to this preference? In their book, The Demise of Guys, psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan suggest that the answer is twofold: fake war and fake sex. They argue that many young men have a natural desire for conflict, struggle, and accomplishment. Video games satiate this desire. They are designed to induce a sense of gradual achievement in the face of obstacles adapted to be just above the player’s ability. Alongside this, young men also have a natural desire to seek sexual partnerships. Digital porn satiates this desire. Porn provides a virtual experience of sexual fulfillment with multiple different partners. Many young men may have simply decided to derive a sense of accomplishment from gaming, and a sense of sexual satisfaction from porn.
Sexy selfies and dating pools
There are far more educated women than educated men. Women generally prefer men who are at least as successful as themselves. This pool of men is small, and continues to shrink. And among couples in which the woman has more education, they tend to prefer men who earn more than themselves. But the reality is that fewer young men are graduating from college compared to women, fewer men are employed, and fewer men are seeking employment. In such an environment, hookup culture becomes more widespread, which women tend not to enjoy as much as men. The romantic landscape is rosy for educated and successful men, who are more open to dating both successful and less successful women. But for women, the situation doesn’t look as favorable. Research suggests in such an environment, sexual competition between women intensifies. In fact, a recent study found that the proliferation of “sexy selfies” may be due in part to economic inequality, as women compete to earn the attention of a shrinking pool of economically successful men.
In a deregulated market, power laws dominate. This is true not only in the economic realm, but in the romantic realm as well. At no point in history have all men in a given society been equally desirable. Today, though, the disparity between men is particularly pronounced. And the gap shows no sign of slowing or closing. The polyamorous movement may be a reaction to shifts in sex ratios among attractive individuals. Many individuals who do not identify as poly are likely practicing some version of it, knowingly or otherwise, as the case of West Elm Caleb demonstrated. The majority desirable young males using dating apps almost certainly have at least three women in their rotation, if not more.
The good news, though, is that among romantic pairings in which both individuals are educated, they tend to be happier. Their divorce rates are lower and their satisfaction with their marriages is higher. But as the incentives continue to shift, monogamous expectations dwindle, and imbalanced ratios continue to influence the dating pool for the educated, we may see fewer such couplings.
This is an updated version of essay I wrote for Quillette in 2020.