Game, Set, Match: Economic Strategies for Winning Love


Suzanne Golshanara

Marriage is supposed to be a dreamy, romantic fairy tale where everyone meets their true love and lives happily ever after, but fairy tales should be left for storybooks. Chances are that if there was a Prince Charming, there would be more than just one eligible fair maiden lining up to be his true love. In reality, the most desirable mates are coveted by many, but never fear, for one can still attain a desirable partner. It merely requires a strong strategy. Research in the field of game theory has proven that in order to get the best matches for themselves, women need to be the ones initiating relationships, and college is certainly the most statistically advantageous place to do so.

The science of decision-making, game theory uses mathematical models to determine the optimal strategy for a player to take in a competitive game. In 1962, economists David Gale and Lloyd Shapley wrote a paper called “College Admissions and the Stability of Marriage” where they discussed strategies that would allow for stable assignments in both the college admissions market and the marriage market. With stable assignments, there would be no case where “a man and woman … are not married to each other but prefer each other to their actual mates.” In other words, no man or woman would able to make themselves better off by trying to find a match outside of the stable assignments.

These assignments are reached through a series of proposals, in which each man proposes to his highest ranked partner. She then rejects all but her favorite proposal. Every man who was rejected then proposes to his second choice. She decides who to pick between her new proposals and her favorite proposal from the previous round and rejects all others. This process continues until everyone is matched with a partner.

In “Dear Undercover Economist: Priceless Advice on Money, Work, Sex, Kids, and Life’s Other Challenges,” economist Tim Harford explains that the “algorithm works equally well if women do the proposing and men do the rejecting.” However, Harford makes it clear that “out of all the stable assignments that exist, the one where men propose is the very worst for women and the very best for men.” In order to get the best match for themselves, women need to realize they are playing a game and to win, they need to be the ones making the first move.

Making the best strategic decisions requires being fully aware of one’s circumstances and taking advantage of them. Evolutionary psychologist Thomas Pollet and behavioral scientist Daniel Nettle  found that matchmaking was based on far more than romance. Rather, supply and demand ruled the day. In “Driving a hard bargain: sex ratio and male marriage success in a historical US population,” Pollet and Nettle found that women in historically majority-male regions were able to demand men of higher economic ranking and social status. Because of the scarcity of women, men were forced to “offer greater commitment to careers promising economic rewards, greater fidelity, and greater investment in children than they would when the sex ratio was neutral or female biased.”

Of course, a modern day version of a dating market with a significant gender gap is the popular dating app Tinder. In fact, the researchers of a paper called “A First Look at User Activity on Tinder” acknowledge that “[w]omen tend to be highly selective in whom they like, leading to a starvation of matches for men.” Likewise, women in male-dominated majors can afford to be more selective when it comes to choosing a partner and can ultimately demand a partner of a higher caliber than they otherwise could have.

When it comes to love, game theorists are clearly the true experts. If women wish to follow the game theorists’ advice, they should focus their search in male-dominated fields, where they are able to be more selective and have greater demands. Women then need to be the ones taking initiative and asking their potential partners out. Love may be a battlefield, but with a few mathematically tried-and-tested strategies, women can avoid settling and be sure to succeed in securing the best romantic partner possible.