Sex by Numbers

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If, upon hearing that there is a book called Freakonomics, you believe it to be about the economics of “gettin’ freaky,” you may not be all that wrong. Freakonomics, currently #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, talks about how understanding incentives is the key to the understanding the world, and that when you think in these terms, virtually anything is measurable. For example, the book not only discusses why people lie on online dating sites, but shows how much they lie — and it’s probably even more than you thought.
    Freakonomics is based on the economic theories of University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, who co-wrote the book with journalist Stephen Dubner. The book’s popularity has been driven by its many intriguing and incendiary theories, the most provocative of which is that the major drop in crime during the ’90s was caused not by a booming economy, but by Roe v. Wade’s passage a generation earlier. While the right wing has been predictably appalled, with some misstating Levitt’s facts and intentions, Levitt and Dubner make the case so logically that you’ll wonder why you never thought of it before.
    The duo begin a monthly column for the New York Times Magazine on June 5. They also blog frequently at Freakonomics.com, where readers can learn such fascinating things as how Levitt’s father is the leading medical researcher on intestinal gas, thereby earning him the nickname, “King of Farts.”
    Dubner was kind enough to answer some questions for Nerve via email. — Larry Getlen Citing abortion as a cause of lower crime, is, obviously, a lightning rod.
The media has seized on this vigorously. I think Steve and I were both a bit naive in thinking that the abortion/crime story was already played out. After all, it was several years ago that he wrote (with John Donohue) an academic paper on the subject, and there was a ton of controversy then. By the time I was asked to write about Levitt for The New York Times Magazine, in summer 2003, I turned down the assignment a few times because I had heard so much about him because of the abortion flap. I’m glad I reconsidered, to be sure. But yes, people are still eager to talk about the abortion/crime link, and when they do so with even an ounce of intelligence and level-headedness, it’s a fascinating conversation. Concerning the abortion section, do you find that people on the right have misinterpreted Steven’s agenda as being moral instead of intellectual?
Only someone who hasn’t read the book, or who is willfully partisan, could possibly misinterpret the agenda. The theory is plainly rooted in data, not morals or religion or politics or philosophy. But, of course, there are always going to be a few people who simply hear the word “abortion” and run for the barricades. Have those in the pro-choice arena seized on Steven’s findings as one more argument for keeping choice legal?
There has been some discussion in the blogosphere lately about the Freakonomics abortion argument vis-à-vis Howard Dean’s recent statement on abortion. Some liberals were upset that Dean had said abortion was an unfortunate thing, a bad thing, but that the right to have one is paramount. I think if the Freakonomics argument is helpful at all in the abortion debate, it’s because it provides a way to measure unintended consequences, which in and of itself is a sort of novel conceit in political arguments. Because of the divisive nature of American politics, people tend to shout and clamor and make big black and white proclamations without thinking much about real ramifications, and the surprises that often accompany social change. Did the abortion study also measure the eventual economic status of the women who had the abortions (compared to what it would have been had they given birth), and determined the effect of that on the economy?
No, Levitt’s abortion study didn’t follow those metrics. But there is a ton of literature, past and present, on the overall effects of Roe v. Wade. The closest thing to such a point in Freakonomics is that a woman who waits until she is thirty to have her first child will typically see that child do better in school than if she had had the child earlier. What this speaks to is the readiness of parents to have a child. A great many of the women who have abortions as young women do have children later, of course; it’s often more a matter of timing than anything, a point that is deeply misunderstood. In the bedroom, one can see the concept of “incentives” applying in many ways. How could someone use incentive-based thinking to attract someone and get what they want sexually?
In all honesty, I think sex and relationships are a lot easier to decipher than most of the stuff that we deal with in Freakonomics, because we are often writing about deception, cheating, corruption, etc. Now, there’s certainly a good deal of all that involved in sex. But for the most part, the sexual hunt is very different because it is highly transparent. So yes, incentives are abused and hidden, etc., but most people aren’t trying to cover their trail anywhere near as much as, say, a cheating schoolteacher or crooked real-estate broker is. There are dating sites that claim they have some formula that will scientifically help you find your ideal mate. Do you think, if he were so inclined, that Steven could use Freakonomics to figure out who someone is truly compatible with sexually?
We’ve talked a little bit about using predictive models from economics to build a sort of compatibility index. It would use many factors (previous number of sexual partners, sexual preferences, income and education, etc.) to try to measure just how viable a particular relationship is. It’s really more of a business model than a research model, so maybe if we run across the right entrepreneur, we’ll make a go of it. What was your most striking finding about online dating?
To me — although, in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have been so surprising — it was the degree to which people’s stated preferences about race differed so much from their actual preferences. In the profiles they wrote, roughly half of the white women and eighty percent of the white men said that race didn’t matter to them. But the response data told a different story. The white men who said that race didn’t matter sent ninety percent of their email queries to white women. The white women who said race didn’t matter sent about ninety-seven percent of their email queries to white men. It’s possible, of course, that race really didn’t matter for these white women and men, and that they simply never happened to browse a non-white date that interested them. Or, more likely, they said that race didn’t matter because they wanted to come across — especially to potential mates of their own race — as open-minded. Based on your studies, how prevalent is lying in the online dating world?
First let me say that the online dating stories we tell in Freakonomics are based on a paper by Dan Ariely, Günter J. Hitsch, Ali Hortaçsu, called “What Makes You Click: An Empirical Analysis of Online Dating.” They got hold of a great database from one of the major mainstream online dating sites, whose identity we can’t reveal because of research protocol. According to this data, online daters are proficient liars about a number of things. This probably isn’t much of a problem for people who are just looking to meet someone to have a good time with; but for people more serious about finding a mate, the fibs will come back to bite them. Which lies were the most common?
Oh, the usual: money, looks, etc. It’s very common for men to say they make more money than they do. It’s very common for women to say they are better-looking than they really are, and that they weigh less than they actually do. Men lie more about height than weight. In truth, the daters are overall pretty savvy in their lies, since they seem to have a good grip on what works and what doesn’t. And responders are savvy too: they ignore anyone who doesn’t post a photo of himself, because no matter how good-looking and rich you say you are, the lack of a photo is a huge red flag. A low-income, poorly educated, unhappily employed, not-very-attractive, slightly overweight and balding man who posts his photo stands a better chance of getting some response emails on a dating site than a man who says he makes $200,000 and is deadly handsome but doesn’t post a photo. Did the study reinforce any personal experiences?
I never personally had the privilege of dating online, so this was new territory to me. But the most familiar truth that emerged from this study was how people say one thing about themselves (i.e., that they’re open-minded about the race of their potential dates) but that their actual behavior reveals something very different. If the first few dates are essentially an audition, then an online dating profile is the equivalent of an actor’s headshot and resume — and we all know that most resumes contain at least one or two fibs. While there are certainly some things for the right to be indignant about in this book, there is also enough to potentially piss off the left (negative comments about teachers unions, stats that point out the futility of gun control, etc.). Do you think that, overall, Steven’s findings favor one political side or the other, or are he and his work truly apolitical?
It’s a good question but a paradoxical one, for anyone who cares enough to ask that question can probably never be convinced that anything is “apolitical.” The typical person sees a political viewpoint in even the most innocuous statement or even cultural symbol. So that’s a hard one. I will say this: Levitt is an equal-opportunity offender. The fun part of this work is that it is devoutly non-partisan: that is, we don’t have a rooting interest, pro or con, in real-estate agents or sumo wrestlers or stockbrokers or medical doctors. We just go where the data tell us to go. But yes, if you’re the type of person who can’t stand to hear a bad word against teachers’ unions, or against gun control, or about the worthlessness of the death penalty as a deterrent, then Freakonomics will probably tick you off a bit. Which, I would argue, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  

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©2005 Larry Getlen and Nerve.com.