Romance

Romance, as a cause, refers to a collection of interventions that affect how people date, marry, and otherwise interact romantically. In particular, interventions try to help people enter and stay in happy romantic relationships. Note that although not strictly included under romance, some non-romantic forms of love (e.g. erotic love) are often discussed alongside romance.

The basic idea is that current means of finding romantic partners seem astoundingly inefficient.1 Many people seem profoundly unhappy even when they are in a relationship/married2, and popular online dating sites like OkCupid probably have low-hanging fruit for improvement. It would be nice if better ways of finding partners who are romantically compatible could emerge.

However, as with all controversial causes, it is important to evaluate to what extent “more and better romance” is a good thing. In other words, in investigating the importance of romance, one must first establish the sign (positive or negative) of the impact of intervening in people’s romantic pursuits.

Upshot/Executive summary

Following a brief investigation of romance as a potential cause, it seems unlikely that romance is a particularly good cause to invest much in (in terms of money, efforts to intervene, etc.). Moreover, more detailed research into romance is unlikely to overturn this impression (though it could still lead to deeper insights). To summarize the main points:

  • Interventions in this area most likely have positive value, but solving romantic issues probably isn’t as important as most people think. In addition there are other causes with definite and high positive impact. (More)
  • Romance seems to be a very difficult problem to solve in general. However, there may be ways to obtain the benefits of “better romance” without necessarily directly tackling romance itself. (More)
  • Numerous groups, mostly for-profit companies, have conducted interventions, mostly in the context of online dating/matching services. (More)

Importance

Given how fundamental romance seems to be among humans and how unhappy people seem to be when their romantic needs go unmet, prima facie there is a good case to be made for the importance of romance as a cause. There are also articles like “Marriage makes people happier than six figure salaries and religion”, which claim links between happiness and marriage.

However in terms of happiness economics, relationships seem to only be part of what determines happiness, and in particular affecting income is probably a more straightforward way to increase happiness (particularly for very low-income individuals). In addition, some people, most notably Bella DePaulo, have claimed that there is no evidence that marriage “makes” people happy.3 Her articles like “Every Time You Hear that Getting Married Will Make You Happier, Read This” also claim that it may be harder than one would think to determine how happy marriage “makes” people.4

Even DePaulo doesn’t claim, though, that intimacy, social boding, and so on, are irrelevant. Indeed, the point of her book seems to be that these benefits can be obtained without “coupling” (i.e. romantic associations that may lead to marriage).[citation?] Therefore there is a possibility that romance may be an incorrect approach to obtaining its purported benefits.

It’s probably uncontroversial to say that improving people’s romantic lives is a good thing, so the sign of interventions is positive. However in terms of magnitude, romance probably fares poorly compared to other causes, and also compared to the attention given to romantic issues by people.

Tractability

Given that many people are in happy relationships, romance isn’t an impossible problem (at least for many people). This situation is unlike many technological causes, where it is unclear whether the technology in question can even be realized. For the most part, romance is also unlike advocacy causes (like Open borders), which require changes in legislation; instead, romance can be approached at a much more local level. Nevertheless, it is unclear how tractable this problem is in full generality. In particular, it seems difficult to estimate how many more people can be placed in happy relationships given certain interventions.

Paul Graham, venture capitalist and co-founder of Y Combinator, wrote in 2005:

For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before Google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as a class project. And yet there’s a lot of money at stake. Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked.

It is important to note that this was only a year after the launch of OkCupid, and indeed in the years since 2005, many more dating services have become available (see Timeline of technology-assisted dating services for the full chronology). Indeed, since the late 1950s there has been a steady stream of dating services that have tried to help with the matching process. The fact that the problem of romance is still very much real attests the difficulty of solving it.

“Controlling love”

  • Robert Epstein on controlling love: “How Science Can Help You Fall in Love”. From the conclusion:

    A careful look at arranged marriage, combined with the knowledge accumulating in relationship science, has the potential to give us real control over our love lives—without practicing arranged marriage. Americans want it all—the freedom to choose a partner and the deep, lasting love of fantasies and fairy tales. We can achieve that kind of love by learning about and practicing techniques that build love over time. And when our love is fading, we can use such techniques to rebuild that love. The alternative—leaving it to chance—makes little sense.

  • To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This on NY Times

  • No. 37: Big Wedding or Small? Quiz: The 36 Questions That Lead to Love

Neglectedness

Numerous interventions have been attempted to increase the number or quality of romantic matches. In the for-profit world, a number of companies have tried to match people using technology; many of these are listed in the Timeline of technology-assisted dating services. In addition, at least the governments of Japan5 and Singapore have in some form tried to intervene in the romantic lives of its citizens.

In terms of discussion of romance, while there seem to be various books (especially pop science and self-help books) written on the subject of romance, as well as various online communities dedicated to helping people meet their romantic needs (e.g. the pick-up artistry movement), romance doesn’t seem to be thought of as a cause to focus on, in the sense that e.g. life extension or existential risk or climate change are thought of as causes. In other words, while interventions focusing on romance are numerous, there isn’t a seriousness about romance as a cause. Approaches to solving this problem seem rather disparate at the moment, where e.g. each author of a book advocates their own preferred approach (which may or may not work for others), or else each dating service tries to appeal to its niche audience. In other words, there seems to be a lack of concerted effort at seriously trying to solve this problem.

The future of dating

One possibility for “solving” the problem of romance is to look at how dating has evolved over the years, and to try to locate and fund promising future forms of dating. Even now, online dating has changed some aspects of how people date. For instance Schaeffer-Grabiel writes in Love and Empire: Cybermarriage and Citizenship across the Americas about the experiences of US men in finding women in Central and South America:

Computers have dramatically altered the process and places of dating, facilitating quick and accessible forums for men to communicate virtually with women in other countries as well as with each other. As I followed men in their search for a bride, it was not only their desire for a Latina that interested me but the pleasure they found discussing their experiences and perspectives with other like-minded men in chat rooms—a process that had not existed in previous mail-order bride exchanges

Robert Epstein also talks about “controlling” love (see below). Future machine learning technology could also make assessing compatibility much easier, and virtual dating might become popular (see below for this as well).

One of the primary difficulties with addressing the problem of romance is the fact that the probability that two randomly selected members of the population will be romantically compatible is low. The vast majority of conceivable ways to address this problem, including existing attempts (such as dances and dating websites like OkCupid), have an effectiveness that increases approximately logistically as the proportion of the population that uses them increases[why?], but the aforementioned low probability means that the inflection point on the graph of effectiveness vs. proportion of population using them is located at a relatively high percentage of the population—certainly one that is likely to intuitively be much greater than the current proportion of the population which uses OkCupid, for instance. In fact, fragmentation of matchmaking services hurts the effectiveness of all of them for a host of reasons, some of which have negative feedback effects.

The natural conclusion is that centralization of these efforts, and in particular the existence of simply one large service for matchmaking, is likely to be optimal.

On the other hand, having niche dating sites might make it more likely for certain people to engage in online dating.

(This “one general dating site” vs “a bunch of niche dating sites” difference sort of resembles the difference between e.g. Quora and Stack Exchange.)

See also:

Intersection with other causes

One reason romance as a cause might be more important than one might first think given its unspectacular performance in the usual metrics (in particular Importance, tractability, and neglectedness) is its intersection with other causes. In particular:

  • The intersection of romance and Open borders yields transnational marriages.6

  • The intersection of romance and more advanced Quantified self and computer algorithms yields more insights in the matching problem, which can then lead to better matches (in terms of efficiency, compatibility). Online dating in particular is also connected to social change in general (and in particular has changed how people think about dating, e.g. how scarce they perceive their dating pool to be7).

  • The intersection of romance and advancements in hardware yields for instance haptic technology to allow more realistic virtual sex (e.g. for those in long-distance relationships, or those not in relationships).

  • Natalism

  • Romance and depression \(\to\) investigating e.g. breakups.

In other words, romance provides a “lens” through which to reason about these other causes. One way to put it is that if these other causes are sufficiently good, then we will end up looking at where these causes intersect with romance anyway. And focusing specifically on the romance aspect of each cause might provide a deeper understanding.

See also

  • Pornography
  • Prostitution
  • Sexual repression
  • This Facebook post to the EA group has ideas about combating loneliness; the specific example given is that of paying a dating site fee.

  • Is Casual Sex Bad for Your Mental Health?

  • John Gottman
  • More Robert Epstein, in this article about online dating:

    How accurate are the ads they find? And just how successful is online dating compared with conventional dating? These and other questions have recently stimulated a small explosion of studies by social scientists. The research is quickly revealing many surprising things about the new world of online dating, and some of the findings could be of great value to the millions who now look to the Internet to find love.

    The article mainly talks about how people are very deceptive in how they portray themselves in online dating profiles, lying about age, weight, income, etc. Not too surprising. The article also talks the future of dating. It mentions making online dating more “community”-oriented, by bringing friends and family into the picture:

    Engage, for example, allows members to bring friends and family with them online, all of whom can prowl the profiles, checking people out and matching them up. Members can also rate the politeness of their dates, as well as the accuracy of the profiles. This is the new “community” approach to online matching—a naturalistic, social corrective for the deception that plagues cyberspace.

    It also mentions virtual dating:

    Using special software developed by the M.I.T. Media Lab, researchers Frost, Ariely and Harvard University’s Michael I. Norton recently reported that people who had had a chance to interact with each other (by computer only) on a virtual tour of a museum subsequently had more successful face-to-face meetings than people who had viewed only profiles. One major bonus: virtual dating takes care of the safety concerns that prevent many people from meeting in person.

    Take this just a small step forward: people meeting and chatting in a romantic virtual cafe on the Champs-Élysées in Paris—seeing and hearing each other online as they interact in this beautiful setting. Andrew Fiore, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies online dating, suggests that in a few years we will even be able to add physiological signs to the experience—the sound of your date’s heartbeat, perhaps?

  • How common is it for “high school romance” to be seen as a “low-status activity” among high-achieving/ambitious students?

    Also, OkCupid is officially 18+. While there are definitely people below 18 on it, there probably aren’t many under 18 who extensively utilize it.

  • talk about polyamory? – and in general trying to expand people’s imagination wrt romance. e.g. “compersion not jealousy” and so on. probably also relates more to various causes that talk about “increasing and refining morality” in the world. See also Abundance mentality.
  • A new book answers why it’s so hard for educated women to find dates and Hookup culture isn’t the real problem facing singles today. It’s math. talk about the scarcity of college-educated males compared to females.
  • Taking the awkwardness out of a Prenup on LessWrong and Nudging Marriage on EconLog about prenups
  • Where Are You, Sexularity? by Katja Grace; from the conclusion:

    Romance matters to us all. Efficiency is even more important. Romantic efficiency should be a key issue, but on many fronts our progress is hampered, and improvements seem sparse. There is no pacifist movement for stemming the waste from romantic conflict nor any transparency movement for stopping the secrecy that slows romantic innovation.


  1. The emergence of the pickup-artistry (PUA) movement, which tries to help people (espeically men) efficiently navigate social cues to get what they want (usually sex) should testify to this to some extent.

  2. See for instance rates of divorce in the US: “the lifelong probability of a marriage ending in divorce is 40%–50%”.

  3. Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Bella DePaulo. 2007.

  4. There is also an earlier article by DePaulo in Psychology Today, “Marriage and Happiness: 18 Long-Term Studies”. See also “Are married people happier than singles?

  5. See for instance the BBC’s “Japan: Speed-dating plan to boost dwindling birth rate” and The Japan Times’ “Government to support matchmaking, men’s child-rearing to raise birthrate”.

  6. See also Open Borders: The Case’s posts on marriage, in particular “Possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders”, which lists marriage as a possible charity intervention to help more people immigrate to the developed world:

    Most countries offer essentially unrestricted immigration for the spouses of current citizens, wherever in the world these spouses reside. Encouraging more marriages between Americans (or people in the desired target country of migration) and foreigners might therefore be one method.

  7. Dan Slater writes in A Million First Dates:

    For virtually all of human history the search for a mate has been predicated on scarcity: One met only so many people in his or her lifetime. They optimized their options within a circumscribed pool, chose someone, settled down, and, in the best of cases, found something they called happiness. Even when women’s lib came along, and the legal and cultural restraints surrounding divorce began to ease in the 1960s and 1970s, making it easier to leave failed relationships, many chose to stick with the devil they knew because of scarcity, believing it was better to be in a so-so relationship than no relationship at all.

    Today, however, companies in the online-dating arms race are building ever more efficient, “frictionless” systems for bringing together people who are likely to like each other. By posing hundreds or thousands of questions and quizzes—or asking nothing at all—these sites offer endless choice, combining to form a vast mate-seeking arena I came to think of as the “date-o-sphere,” not a physical construct but not an entirely virtual one either, a special category of social media that yokes together enormous online communities for the purpose of offline relationships.