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Old-Fashioned Matchmaking as an Antidote to Modern Dating Dilemmas

We recently put out four Freakonomics Radio episodes that developed an arc of a theme: “Reasons to Not Be Ugly,” “What You Don’t Know About Online Dating,” “Why Marry? (Part 1)” and “Why Marry? (Part 2).” These episodes prompted a lot of interesting listener/reader replies. Here is a particularly interesting one, from a woman we’ll call R.:

I recently listened to your podcast on online dating and found it fascinating — not so much because of the economics of dating, but more how it contrasted and compared with the economics of the dating world I live in: the Orthodox Jewish semi-arranged marriages.

I grew up in upstate New York, in a village that is almost only Haredi Orthodox. The world I live in is sort of like Jane Austen, very marriage-oriented. Every girl (and boy for that matter) wants to get married, and does so in her early twenties. The systems at play to get everyone married off must fascinate an outsider. Out of my class of about sixty, about 95% got married within the first five years out of school. So far, only one girl is divorced. It’s hard to quantify happiness in all these marriages but from what my friends tend to tell me, most seem very happy in their relationships. I know that the Orthodox Union has done research into the area. They collected a lot of data by surveying thousands of Orthodox couples, including Haredim, with in-depth online questionnaires. While I have not examined their data (and what a treasure trove that must be to an economist!) I think that this success in matching quickly, efficiently, and happily is due to changing the incentives you talk about in your podcast. The entire process seems to have been designed to reduce outer beauty from being the main incentive in a marriage market.

Instead of online profiles, we Orthodox Jews have been using the age old shadkhan (matchmaker) solution — namely, that a third party suggests a match to the two prospective parties. The incentive of the shadkhan is twofold: one is the great spiritual merit of bringing about a successful match and the other is monetary — they are gifted money for a successful match. The shadkhan has no incentive to limit his or her scope to the local community they live in. They can suggest boys or girls from all over the world. Similarity is seen as having to do with religious standards, not native-born culture.

Since the parents are involved in sorting through the suggested matches, their incentives are as important as their son’s or daughter’s. Men, as you note in the podcast, seem to go for the mean women just for their looks — but can you imagine what would happen if their mothers narrowed the dating fields for them? Not only are looks less important to parents, but since the information they receive usually contains only verbal descriptions of looks, they tend to look for qualities they want their child’s spouse to have, such as: maturity, stability, kindness, etc. For most people I know, the character of the girl or boy was the most important factor in a match. Parents want to see their child married to someone who will be kind, caring, and capable of unselfishly loving their son or daughter.

Unlike the rest of the world, a man’s academic level can be really important to a woman and her parents, since studying in Jewish terms is really  held in high esteem. Most Haredi communities are built on the ideal of Torah scholarship, so many parents of girls seek out the greatest yeshiva student they can for their daughters. In this, the modern-day Haredi community is a little different than the shtetl Jews of Europe: wealthy father-in-laws sometimes offer lifetime financial support to a budding scholar to marry his daughter. The scholar gains the ability to continue studying without worrying about finances, and the father-in-law gains the religious merit of Torah scholarship. 

The gathering of information precedes the couple meeting. Parents (and sometimes the prospective couple too) will make phone calls to friends of the suggested match, or to people they know in common. The shadkhan provides these numbers. They then try to get as much knowledge about the suggested person. The positive traits of the match are considered, and many of the negatives are likewise discovered by this process.

It is only at this point, when everything seems perfect on paper, that the young man and woman meet. By the time they meet, they are relatively confident that the person they are meeting comes from a family they are comfortable joining and is the right person for them on a personality level. Their meeting leaves only one question still open-ended: do the boy and girl actually like each other? Do they find chemistry and attraction with each other? The decision to marry a person is therefore made first with the head and only then is the heart allowed to play. The boy and girl then can date, depending on what the norm is in their community, anywhere from a few days to a few months. During that time, they date only in open public environments like parks, hotel lobbies, and restaurants — and they don’t touch, so physical attraction can’t get ahead of a solid mindful decision of the intended’s merits. This again is a buffer against making a choice of marriage based only on the physical aspects. When they are each satisfied (or dissatisfied), they either get engaged or stop dating.

The system is no utopia. It solves many problems of the marriage and dating markets, but the changed incentives create different ones. Men and women suffer very little from the heartache, breakups, and competition that dating in the long and unvetted manner usually causes. Women in particular are fortunate in this system, because their looks are not the first thing that is judged; it is one of the last. Inner qualities become much more important: “good,” sweet, compassionate, kind-hearted girls, the ones who spite no one, tend to get more and “better” matches in this marriage market. Women also don’t have to worry about men seeking short-term superficial relationships, because that is not an option. On the other hand, women suffer because statistically there seem to be more girls than boys in the Orthodox marriage market today. There is also a higher demand for academically successful yeshiva students than are available. This makes it a man’s world, with men having the ability to be pickier and women finding the need to compromise much more often. Men have the short end of the stick in other areas. Men who don’t exceed scholastically are much less of a catch — though even there, there is another market for them, as there are girls who seek to marry boys who will work directly after marriage rather than studying (and thereby be potentially more financially successful).

There are also incentives at play that would affect a parent more than a child, namely the family situation of the suggested boy or girl. Parents tend to care more about what sort of family they are aligning themselves with. They might be drawn to suggestions in which the family is prestigious, have some great standing, or are financially well off. Any sort of unstable home also detracts from the match in the parents’ eyes, in a way that wouldn’t as easily bother a child. Divorced homes, as there are so few, are a considerable stain.

The Orthodox marriage market is hardly monolithic, so what I am writing here about Haredim is not the sole method. Dating in the more modern end of Orthodoxy is mostly like the rest of America, with the exception that marriage is its only intent. Regardless, it makes a fascinating comparison to the online dating matchmaking sites. It’s really a much more economically balanced market, with so many more factors that affect supply and demand, than the online dating market. An attractive woman does not usually beat an unattractive one in offer volume or quality, nor does a wealthy man win over a poor one.

I hope you continue to produce such thought provoking material.

R. followed up with a further thought:

In your podcast, you have an economist discuss how more information in the online dating market should, in the abstract, help people make better choices. I think the mistake there is equating quantity of information with the quality of the information. Is the fact that a guy writes that he likes whiskey and other funny incidental information, all written by the person themselves and thereby totally biased, really important? Even if the person wrote anything important, it is lost in the noise of irrelevant information, and this is not to mention that your podcast recommended writing white lies. In the Haredi marriage market, we not only have much more information before proceeding into any marriage, but it is high-quality information. We ask tons of friends, employers, and other people about the perspective match. Although most people tend to try to give mostly good information, a few prying questions will always reveal any major faults. With such high quality information, people are much better equipped to make much better decisions on whether someone, with all their good, bad and in-betweens, is “right” for them before ever meeting them and losing their heart.