Why underestimate acceptable partners?

Cross posted from Overcoming Bias. Comments there.

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The romantic view of romance in Western culture says a very small fraction of people would make a great partner for you, customarily one.

Some clues suggest that in fact quite a large fraction of people would make a suitable spouse for a given person. Arranged marriages apparently go pretty well rather than terribly. Relationships are often formed between the only available people in a small group, forced together. ‘If I didn’t have you‘ by Tim Minchin is funny. It could be that relationships chosen in constrained circumstances are a lot worse than others, though I haven’t heard that. But they are at least common enough that people find them worthwhile. And the fraction of very good mates must be at least a lot greater than suggested by the romantic view, as evidenced by people ever finding them.

So it seems we overstate the rarity of good matches. Why would we do that? One motive would be to look like you have high standards, which suggests that you are good enough yourself to support such standards.

But does this really make sense? In practice, most of the ways a person could be especially unusual such that it is hard for them to find a suitable mate are not in the direction of greatness. Most of them are just in various arbitrary directions of weirdness.

If I merely sought mates with higher mate value than me, they wouldn’t be that hard to find. They are mostly hard to find because I just don’t really get on well with people unless they are on some kind of audacious quest to save the world, in the top percentile of ‘overthinking things’ and being explicit, don’t much mind an above average degree of neuroticism on my part, and so on.

The romantic view is much closer to the truth for weird people than normal people. So while endorsing the romantic view should make you look more elite, by this argument it should much more make you look weird. In most cases – especially during romance – people go to a lot of trouble to not look weird. So it seems this is probably not how it is interpreted.

Most of anyone’s difficulty in finding mates should be due to them being weird, not awesome. So why does considering a very small fraction of people suitable make you seem good rather than weird?

2 responses to “Why underestimate acceptable partners?

  1. Emphasizing the number of available alternatives is likely to make a partner worry that you’re likely to explore some of those alternatives at some point.

  2. Katya– interesting points. My thinking on this is that saying one has “high standards” actually means 2 other things which can signal high value:

    1. I have learned that I have high standards because so many people have liked me, but I haven’t really liked any of them. (Note that in addition to showing that you’re pre-selected, you’re also letting them know that you’re available for them. Obvious advantage)

    2. By saying you gave high standards, you’re trying to say that you take yourself seriously and so you want the other person to do so as well. You’re basically warning them to be as good as they can be. Not crazy I guess. Maybe trying to intimidate the other person a bit as well. A version of playing hard to get.

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