Why you don’t seek friends dating site style

Robin asks an interesting question:

Bryan Caplan recently pointed out to a few of us that while many dating web sites offer to help you find matching romantic mates, there are far fewer friend finding helpers.  We tend to collect friends informally, by liking the people we meet for other reasons, and especially friends of friends. But for mating purposes we are more willing to choose folks based on a list of their interests, an intro paragraph, a picture, etc.  Why the difference?

His theory:

We need mates more for their simple surface features, while we need friends more to serve as social allies in our existing social network.  Since we need friends in substantial part to serve as allies in our social world, supporting us against opposing coalitions, it makes sense to draw our friends from our existing social world.  And since we need mates more for their personal quality, e.g., good genes, youth, wealth, smarts, mood, etc., it makes sense to pick them more via such features.

I have a different theory, though I’m not especially confident in it. First notice that people are actually often eager to make friends with people outside their social circle. They don’t want to make friends on the subway, but they join groups, play sports, couchsurf, partake in a huge range of social online activities, and go to conferences often with the intention of making new friends, who would be outside their existing social circle. A difference between any of these activities and online dating is that with the latter you have to be explicit about the fact that you are trying each other out when you go on a date. It is obvious when one of you decides against the other, and the relationship is usually sharply ended. With meeting friends casually this is not so; you can talk to people and assess them a lot before anybody even knows you are considering being friends with them. Even once you have done some friendly thing with a person, if you don’t see them for months its not clear whether you hated them or have just been busy. Friend meeting activities are best then with a group of people and a supposed other purpose to the interaction.

I think this latter style is necessary for friends but not for romance because you can have many friends and only one partner, which makes turning someone down as a friend much ruder. Turning down someone as a partner says ‘I don’t think you are the best mate I can find given a few decades’ whereas turning down someone as a friend says ‘you are worse than zero’. It’s hard enough to explicitly tell someone the first thing, the second is near impossible. And if the recipient doesn’t listen to the first, you can get angry, have them arrested, get your new partner to threaten them, or whatever. Would be friends can safely hang around for years not getting hints.

So if you were to advertise for friends you would probably be stuck with most of those you tried out, at least for a little while until you managed to gradually happen to not see each other, and there is some risk of the relationship remaining for a long time. These risks make online-dating style friend seeking just too costly.

6 responses to “Why you don’t seek friends dating site style

  1. I’m not sure what’s wrong with the easy answer here. It’s harder to find mates than friends. This is true for everyone, even the extremely good-looking (with the exception of the extremely attractive looking for casual sex in places where there’s lots of that, like in college). All of the qualities required to be someone’s friend are also required to be someone’s romantic partner, plus a bunch of other qualities besides.

    Online dating is costly. It’s costly because it’s un-fun work (those social activities one uses to meet friends are fun); it’s costly because it makes one look and feel like a loser/highlights one’s failures in the ordinary social world, etc.; it’s costly because it constitutes lowering one’s standards by accepting people for initial interactions based just on a picture and some essays rather than prescreened by friends. We don’t have to incur this cost to find friends to meet our needs. Sadly, some of us do have to incur it to find dates.

  2. Wouldn’t poly people be less likely to date online, since they can have more partners than one? They seem to be more likely to do so – but we’d need to correct for early adoption and geekiness.

    @Paul Gowder: No, we could just adjust our standards according to cost.

  3. Leopold, that last comment seems hasty. Lowering standards is costly too, and if it’s more costly than using online dating…

  4. Online friend meeting should then be a worthwhile investment – it adds competition and thus allows you to raise your standards for offline friends.

  5. Maybe the returns available from a date are simply better than from a friend, so we’re willing to expend more effort to get one?

  6. Pingback: Reading List for the Week ending August 18, 2017 – Reading Diet


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