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Dan ArielyBack to OpinionDan Ariely

The economics of the boring first date

When going on a first date, we try to achieve a delicate balance between expressing ourselves, learning about the other person and not offending anyone, favoring friendly over controversial even at the risk of sounding dull. This approach might be best exemplified by an amusing quote from the film “Best in Show”: “We have so much in common, we both love soup and snow peas, we love the outdoors, and talking and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.”

Basically, in an attempt to coordinate the right dating strategy, we stick to universally shared interests like food or the weather. It’s easy to talk about our views on mushrooms and anchovies — and the topic arises easily over dinner at a pizzeria — but that doesn’t guarantee a stimulating conversation, and certainly not a real measure of our long-term romantic match.

This is what economists call a bad equilibrium. It is a strategy that all the players in the game can converge on, but it does not produce a desirable outcome for anyone.

We decided to look at this problem in the context of online dating. We picked apart e-mails sent between online daters, prepared to dissect the juicy details of first introductions. But we found that people like to maintain boring equilibrium at all costs — although they must have had interesting things to say, they presented themselves as utterly insipid in their written conversations. “Where did you go to college?” “What are your hobbies?” and “What is your line of work?” was the stuff of their dull exchanges.

We sensed a compulsion to avoid rocking the boat, so we decided to push these hesitant daters overboard. What did we do? We gave them a preset list of questions and allowed them to ask only those questions. Our questions had nothing to do with the weather or how many brothers and sisters they have. Instead all the questions were interesting and personally revealing: How many romantic partners did you have? When was your last breakup? Do you have any STDs? Have you ever broken someone’s heart? How do you feel about abortion?

Our daters had to choose questions from the list to ask another dater, and could not ask anything else. They were forced to risk it by posing questions outside of generally accepted bounds. And their partners responded, creating much livelier conversations than we had seen when daters asked their own questions. Instead of talking about the World Cup or their favorite desserts, they shared their innermost fears or told the story of losing their virginity. Everyone, both sender and replier, told us later that they were happier with the interaction.

What we learned from this little study is that, when people are free to choose what to talk about, they often gravitate toward an equilibrium that is easy to maintain but that no one really enjoys or benefits from. The good news is that, if we restrict the equilibria, we can get people to gravitate toward behaviors that are better for everyone.

And what can you do personally with this idea? Think about ways to make your discussions more risky and less boring. Set the rules of discussion upfront, and get your partner to agree that tonight you will only ask questions about things you are truly interested in. Maybe you can agree to ask five difficult questions first instead of wasting time talking about what you did at work that day. Or maybe create a list of topics that are not allowed. By forcing ourselves to step out of our comfort zones, and risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more.