MAS 964  ·  Techno-Identity  ·  Spring 2005

jobs, dates and tennis partners: the market for relationships

One of the primary activities of social life is forming relationships, whether as business associates, friends, lovers, or life-long companions.  Assessing the identity of the other is key question of this process:  who is this person? What are their beliefs and history?  What will be our future together? 

We rely on signals to answer these questions.  Applicants’ resumes can be read as signals of their ability to do job; a man’s adroitness at opening doors may be interpreted as a signal of his innate courtesy.  These signals are of varying reliability (the resume may be padded) and subjectivity (the door opening interpreted instead as a signal of reflexive sexism).  The signaling dynamics in relationships formation are complex, for each party would like to present itself in the most attractive light, while simultaneously being able to rigorously assess the other.

It is becoming increasingly common to form relationships of all kinds online.   There are sites for brokering professional relationships, for finding tennis partners, babysitters, and renovation contractors.  The online dating sites in particular have seen an extraordinary growth in the last few years.   This chapter will focus on dating, because the signaling literature is mainly about mating behavior and dating is the relationship most commonly sought online; there will, however, also be discussion of other types of relationships

In online dating sites people are represented by profiles consisting of a photograph and essays about who they are and what they are seeking.   The reader can sort and filter the profiles by age, location, religion, smoking habits, etc.  The sites form a marketplace of relationships, a market whose advantage is size. Rather than choosing from a limited selection of known and local candidates, the online job or marriage seeker can choose from an immense array of possibilities, conveniently sortable across various dimensions. The disadvantage is that the identity signals are less reliable and less telling.

This week we will begin by looking at how signaling is used in the formation of relationships, drawing from the rich body of literature on this topic in both biology and evolutionary psychology.  Included in the discussion will be topics such as the perception of attractiveness, how gifts of time and things signal the importance of a relationship, and the impact of different long term goals on signaling strategies.   We will use this as the basis for analyzing contemporary relationships sites and for design directions for future sites. 


Buss, David    The Evolution of Desire ch 5
Bryn and Lenton    Love Online: A Report on Digital Dating in Canada
[optional]Gates and Nissen   Designing agent-based electronic employment markets
[optiona]Raymond Fisman, Sheena Iyengar, Emir Kamenica, & Itamar Simonson Searching for a Mate: Theory and Experimental Evidence
[optional] Albright, Julie
Geoffrey F. Miller Aesthetic fitness


  1. Read the papers
  2. Look at an online dating site -,, etc. - a search in google for "online dating" will yield lots. Think about what qualities are people trying to assess, what are the signals they are using to do so.
  3. The world of online dating is a classic signaling system, in which personal essays and photos are the signals - but what are the qualities they are meant to represent? Drawing from the readings above, describe the process in terms of signaling. Then, answer the following questions:
    1. What are the costs of writing a profile - terms of effort? money (here are some notes on how pay sites impose useful costs)?
    2. What are the costs of including a photo? What is the function of the photo? Is physical appearance a signal or a quality - and is that different than its function in the face to face world?
    3. What are the costs to the receivers? What are the assessment signals in these sites? What signals denote qualites main by convention?
    4. What are some kinds of deception that could occur (if you can't think of any, trying searching for "online bad dates")? What mechanisms are in place now for minimizing this?
    5. Could information be shared among the participants? Would this be helpful? How could you redesign the system to allow for this? Think about the reputation systems we discussed in class. How would this impose costs on deception?
    6. How is dating similar or different from other types of "people markets"? Any employment situation is potentially such a market, as is the market for tennis partners, book club members, etc. The costs of deception differ in these cases, as do the structure of the market (are there repeated interactions? is information likely to be shared? what is the relationship among competitors? [Read Gates and Nissen for additional examples]
  4. Propose a topic for you final project. We will be discussing final projects (or papers) in class - please be prepared to succinctly describe the topic and approach you have in mind.

please make your essay available by Monday midday (March 28)