Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dance, Dance, Evolution

For those of you who have read my previous postings, you've probably gathered that I'm not very cool. It's okay, really, I've come to accept it. No where is this point clearer to me than at clubs. Dance music induces a powerful, deer-in-headlights reaction and I spend most of the night close to the bar, moving just enough so that people watching closely think I'm dancing. So, perched in my hiding spot in the land of the nerds, I made a casual observation: clubs tend to be populated by aggressive guys. And, contrary to what women say they want, these guys tend to go home with someone on their arm.

The club/bar scene is a strange place. For one thing, it's one of the only places in public life that has an enforced gender ratio. A few years ago my girlfriend and I attended a birthday party at a New York club (I won't say the which, but it was named after a common non-sexual bedroom object). We arrived on time (not cool, I know) and got right in. But the male guests (who were on an invited list) who arrived after 11pm were not so lucky. By that time, too many males had entered the club--leading to the dreaded "sausage fest"--and the bouncers weren't letting any additional males unless they came in with at least one female. It's hard to fault bar owners from a business perspective. Men are more likely to buy women drinks than the other way around, so having more women than men makes sense for a profit-maximizing bar owner.

So what is it about bars and clubs that lend themselves to aggressive guys? Part of the answer is simple self-selection. Shy guys are more likely to eschew the club scene, while their aggressive counterparts grind with strangers. But another important factor has to do with the club environment itself and its affect on signaling behavior. In economics, signaling is a means of overcoming the problem of "asymmetric information," where one party knows more about their end of the transaction than the other. Dating is fraught with asymmetric information: you do not know whether the person chatting you up is interested in the long-term or simply a one-night stand, whether they're crazy and will end up stalking you when the relationship ends, or whether the decision to sleep with them will necessitate a course of penicillin. People overcome this problem through signaling. Men signal wealth by paying for women's drinks, women signal sexual availability by showing cleavage, and everyone tries to signal interest through humor. You're much more likely to laugh at attractive people's jokes.

However, many avenues for signaling are cut off in the club scene. Clubs and bars tend to be dark, loud, and crowded. As a result, it's harder to signal intelligence, humor or sensitivity, since these are all signaled through conversation. It's easier to signal wealth (through clothes and buying drinks), or to signal interest through aggressiveness. So in addition to self-selection, the existence of aggressive guys at clubs is a function of natural selection: the only guys that can signal affectively in clubs are the ones who are aggressive. This creates an incentive for men to be aggressive. The club environment, in essence, leads to the extinction of the shy male.

What's interesting is that the enforced gender ratio may mitigate this, somewhat. By restricting the supply of males, the club reduces the degree of competition by the lucky men who gained entry. In practice, however, this effect seems to be overwhelmed by self-selection and the environmental incentives.

What does this mean for women in clubs? In a sense, you get what you pay for. Women who go to clubs to dance with their friends will have to suffer through cheesy come-ons, relying on the strategy of safety in numbers. For women looking to meet guys, well, buyer beware!

Beyond signaling, though, there's another strategy that can be successfully employed in clubs. Both men and women can exploit the human bias known in Behavioral Economics as "anchoring". Anchoring refers to the tendency of relying on a specific (and sometimes arbitrary) value and making comparisons based on that. MIT Professor and noted Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely provides the following example:

"An audience is first asked to write the last 2 digits of their social security number, and, second, to submit mock bids on items such as wine and chocolate. The half of the audience with higher two-digit numbers would submit bids that were between 60 percent and 120 percent more, far higher than a chance outcome; the simple act of thinking of the first number strongly influences the second, even though there is no logical connection between them."

So what can you do in a club? Make sure you show up with a friend of the same sex that's not as good looking as you. When approaching members of the opposite sex, make sure this friend is by your side; it would probably be better if the friend started the conversation. This will set an anchor, making you seem more attractive by comparison. Unfortunately this will only work if your friend doesn't know the plan. Once he discovers your real reason for hanging out with him, he'll probably be offended, and then (if he's smart) find another friend less attractive than him.

For more information about Behavioral Economics and the strange biases that people have, check out Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

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