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Episode Transcript

Marc Goñi is from Spain, but a few years ago he moved to Norway.

Marc GOÑI: I live here with my girlfriend.

Stephen DUBNER: Is your girlfriend Spanish? 

GOÑI: No. She’s from Estonia, actually. 

DUBNER: Did you meet her at a ball at the Queen’s Palace?

GOÑI: No, no, no, no. I’m as far as possible from the aristocracy.

DUBNER: So you’re saying, for the record, you’re not an aristocrat? 

GOÑI: I’m not an aristocrat. 

Although Goñi is not an aristocrat, he is the next best thing — at least in my book: he’s an economist. He teaches at the University of Bergen. Among his research interests are economic history and marriage.

GOÑI: Most people, when they think about marriage, they think about it in terms of preferences and in terms of love. 

But economists aren’t “most people.”

GOÑI: We economists, we tend to focus on other factors and namely the fact that the person you end up with is not only the person you choose, but it’s also determined by the set of people that you have met. So this idea is what encapsulates the idea of the marriage market. 

Is marriage really a market? That’s the question we’ll try to answer today, through the lens of Bridgerton…  

SIMON BASSET: You cannot possibly be thinking of marrying him.

DAPHNE BRIDGERTON: If I am unable to secure another offer, there may be no alternative.

…up through Tinder and Bumble.

Helen FISHER: I think people truly misunderstand these dating services.

Not after today’s episode, we won’t misunderstand.

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FISHER: I am extremely optimistic about marriage. 

That is Helen Fisher.

FISHER: I’m a biological anthropologist, and I study love.

Fisher is a longtime academic, and is currently a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. But also:

FISHER: I am the chief science advisor to the dating site Match.com. 

As for her optimism about marriage — if you look at the marriage data, that optimism may seem misplaced. Consider the U.S. Before the Great Depression, there were more than nine marriages each year per 1,000 people; it fell to around eight during the Depression, but after World War II, it shot up to 16. There has since been a long decline. By the early 2000s, we were back to around eight marriages per 1,000 people, and by 2019 the rate had fallen to roughly six. In 2020, the last year for which we have the data — and, to be fair, it was the first year of Covid — that rate fell even further, to roughly five marriages per 1,000 Americans. But Helen Fisher says that within those numbers, there is some good news — at least what she thinks is good news.

FISHER: What we’re seeing now is we’re marrying later and later. In my day — I’m a baby boomer — people married in their very early twenties, about age 21 for women, 22, 23 for men. Now they’re marrying at age 28, 29 for women and age 30, 31 for men. So there’s this long period of what I call pre-commitment, all through your twenties, during which singles are growing up. They are learning what they want, they are learning what they don’t want.

And while this may lead to fewer marriages, it’s also leading to better, more durable marriages.

FISHER: I’ve looked at the divorce data through the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations since 1947 to 2011. That’s millions of people. And as it turns out, the longer you court, and the later you marry, the more likely you are to stay together. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in America today.

The U.S. divorce rate peaked in the 1980s, with nearly 23 divorces per thousand marriages each year. As of 2019, there were around 15 divorces per thousand, and the rate has hit a 50-year low. So that’s interesting. But it does raise a question — a big, existential question: why, exactly, do people get married anyway? There’s good evidence that marriage leads to better life outcomes — health and wealth outcomes; also, the children of married people tend to do better than the children of unmarried people. We should say: it can be hard to pin down the causality on the benefits of marriage. It may be that people who aren’t doing as well on the health and wealth fronts simply have a harder time finding a mate. Still, even when you control for demographic differences, it does look like marriage has real material benefits. And, as Helen Fisher will tell you, there is also a metaphysical reason to marry. It’s called love.

FISHER: People pine for love. They live for love. They kill for love, and they die for love. And when you think about — I mean the myths, the legends, the poems, the stories, the novels, the sitcoms, the operas, the plays, the symphonies, the ballets, the therapists, the holidays. We’re drowning in this thing.

So that’s an anthropologist’s perspective. For an economist, love is tricky. What sort of dataset can you use to measure love?

GOÑI: This is quite the fundamental question. 

That, again, is Marc Goñi, who studies marriage markets. The word “market” implies buyers and sellers of goods and services.

GOÑI: There’s several differences, of course, in the marriage market. It’s a market in the sense that there’s single people looking to form a match as in a goods market I would be looking for a particular product that I like. It captures the idea of two sides looking to form a match. Typically, we don’t have prices — although in some cultures, there’s dowries and there’s bride prices. 

Dowries are still common in rural India, for instance. That, of course, is not how marriage works in the U.S. and most other high-income places. Marriage here is mostly an autonomous decision, and it involves a search. You go on some bad dates and maybe a few good ones; you evaluate potential partners until you find the right one. In some cases, you do nearly everything associated with marriage, including living together, before you actually marry. In some places, you do all this and you never marry.

GOÑI: I totally consider myself as married, although I haven’t done the formal thing. It’s not entirely clear that I will do it.

Goñi, remember, is Spanish.

GOÑI: If I compare myself and my friends to the generation of my parents, you see that both ended up in long-term relationships, but the marriage rate is much lower nowadays. The marriage rate in Europe since the 1960s has halved. So, although we still observe many long-term relationships, most of these long-term partnerships now take a different form. 

Americans consider this type of long-term partnering, including having children together, as a European style. But it’s happening more here, too. Since 1990, the share of cohabiting, non-married couples has more than doubled. So that may help explain a bit of the U.S. marriage decline. Another factor is education. The economist Amalia Miller, in a recent series we ran on college, told us that attending a prestigious school has a big impact on women’s incomes — and other aspects of their lives, too.

Amalia MILLER: What we find is that there’s a significant decline in women’s likelihood of being married in their late 30s if they attended a more elite school for college. These women are less likely to marry, but when they do marry, they’re marrying men who are more educated.

When one highly educated person pairs off with another highly educated person, that’s an example of what is called “assortative matching” or “assortative mating.” Broadly, this is the idea that most people end up marrying someone who’s quite like them in some significant way. But, again, it’s tricky to nail down the causality here — to tell whether that’s a true preference or just a function of circumstance. In other words, do we pair off with people because of our similarities, or because we tend to meet people who are similar to us?

GOÑI: What we observe is the final outcome. We observe who marries whom. But it’s hard to disentangle what reflects the choices and what reflects the marriage-market aspect of who we met.

There is some evidence to help with the disentangling.

GOÑI: There are a couple of studies that have tried to identify preferences by looking at data from dating apps and from these speed-dating experiments where you can, as a researcher, control who meets whom. And these studies, in general, tend to show that in many dimensions, there is a preference for assortative matching.

But, Goñi points out, these studies are looking at dating.

GOÑI: So for marriage or let’s say a long-term partnership, it’s still difficult to understand how much of the patterns we observe come from preferences and how much from the market itself.

DUBNER: In other words, in a dating market, you might see more experimentation or more deviating from your core preferences, whereas marriage you only do it once or maybe twice or three times. But you’re saying that we might become more conservative in our choices when it comes to marriage than in dating, is that right?

GOÑI: That’s a possibility. Marriage and these long-term relationships, you’ve got to think more carefully, whereas in dating, there is definitely more experimentation. 

The anthropologist Helen Fisher, in her work with the dating company Match.com, has spent the past 12 years trying to understand what Americans are looking for in a partner.

FISHER: We poll 5,000 Americans every year. This is a national representative sample of singles based on the U.S. Census. Every age from 18 to 71-plus. Rural, suburban, urban. Every part of the country. Black, white, Asian, Latino, et cetera, et cetera.

And what has she learned?

FISHER: Over 50 percent of Americans do want a partner who shares their political views. About 43 percent want a partner who is of the same ethnic background. About 46 percent want somebody of the same religious background. What’s interesting to me is the huge percentage of people that don’t care. 

DUBNER: Is it that they don’t care, or they say on a survey they don’t care because they may want to appear to be the type of person who would say that they don’t care when, in fact, they may care?

FISHER: You never know, Stephen. I do a lot of questionnaires and you can answer a questionnaire in one of three ways: with who you really are, with who you want to be, or with who you want others to think you are. But because we have so many thousands of people, and there’s a bell-shaped curve, we can be pretty confident of what we’re doing. 

DUBNER: When I say the phrase “assortative mating,” you say what?

FISHER: It’s a basic academic term, which basically means that we’re drawn to certain kinds of people for certain Darwinian evolutionary reasons. 

DUBNER: And does that necessarily mean that likes attract, or can it also include opposites attract? 

FISHER: Yes, people who like to play tennis tend to be drawn to people who like to play tennis. We do know that people tend to fall in love with somebody from the same ethnic and socioeconomic background, same degree of intelligence, good looks and education, same religious and social values, and same reproductive and economic goals. But you can walk into a room, and everybody is from your background, level of education, et cetera, and you don’t fall in love with all of them. 

Again, that’s the anthropologist’s view. If you are an economist and you’re thinking about assortative mating, you may ask a different set of questions. For instance, what kind of socioeconomic effects might we see from assortative mating? If high-income people only marry other high-income people and low-income people do the same, what does that mean for social mobility and income inequality? These are the kind of questions that Marc Goñi has been thinking about.

GONI: It seems that inequality is very persistent over very long periods of time. So in order to understand this process and why this inequality has survived massive political changes, revolutions, and so on, there has to be something that we economists were missing. And part of it is these marriage decisions, how to pass down wealth, how to educate your children. And marriage is a very important determinant of this long-term inequality.

DUBNER: And when you talk about the economist’s interest in income inequality, is it that you are interested in understanding this high concentration of income at the top of the distribution? Or are you more interested in disrupting it for the sake of society? 

GOÑI: I’m interested in understanding it and my prior is that it is very disruptive. An extreme concentration of wealth and income, especially when it comes to being concentrated in the hands of very few individuals, can distort many of the important political processes in society. When you have a bunch of people that are very rich and monopolize a lot of the wealth in the society, they also take over the institutions. It’s important to understand its causes and important to understand which of the determinants of inequality we can tackle and which we cannot tackle.

So Goñi decided to take an in-depth look at those people who, as he puts it, “monopolize a lot of wealth in society.” He just published a paper called “Assortative Matching at the Top of the Distribution: Evidence from the World’s Most Exclusive Marriage Market.” And what is the world’s most exclusive marriage market?

COURT ANNOUNCER: Miss Daphne Bridgerton!

I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio, we’ll be right back. 

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GOÑI: So the world’s most exclusive marriage market — and this won’t come as a surprise for watchers of Bridgerton — was the London Season. 

That again is Marc Goñi, an economist at the University of Bergen in Norway who studies marriage markets. Bridgerton, if you haven’t seen it, is an historical romance series on Netflix, executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes. It’s set in the 19th century, and it follows what’s called the London Season. That’s when the English peerage — the dukes and earls, barons and lords — would come into the city from their countryside estates.

GOÑI: So every year for six months, there was the Parliament season. And in 19th-century Britain, this meant that aristocrats from all over the country converged on London to attend the sessions in the House of Lords.

DUBNER: It’s about 800 families or so, you write. Is that right? In all of England, this is, yes?

GOÑI: Exactly, 800 families. They rented a house in London. And soon, this developed into the social season. 

DUBNER: Wait a minute, Marc — they had to rent a house? They didn’t also own a house in London? 

GOÑI: No, the typical practice was to rent a house. You needed a house large enough to organize big balls. This only happened when you had marriageable daughters. 

DUBNER: So let’s say I have three daughters who are just approaching or maybe already in marriageable age. What are my incentives as a parent? What am I looking for? 

GOÑI: The essence of the Season was that by the 19th century, arranged marriages were no longer acceptable. So parents could not directly choose who their children married. Now, they came out to a solution to this problem, which was that while children were allowed to choose their partners, parents made sure they would only meet the, “right sort of people.” Your preference for your daughters would be that she would marry within the high aristocracy, within the peerage if possible, and to a higher-titled person, and preferably someone who owned large amounts of land and high income derived from this land. 

So here was a very well-defined marriage market, with a finite set of players and clear incentives — a perfect scenario for an economist who studies marriage. You might think it would be tricky to find records of whose daughters went to which parties 150 years ago, but the English aristocracy did a wonderful job of tracking their children’s social engagements. And these records are preserved in the British National Archives.

GOÑI: I was there in this archive with this massive dusty book with the list of all the 19th-century people invited to royal parties, which was great fun. 

Yes, many of these were “royal” parties, because at the center of this social scene was one key figure:

LADY WHISTLEDOWN: It is only the Queen’s eye that matters today.

DUBNER: So I have seen just enough of Bridgerton to know that the person who really coordinated the Season was none other than the queen herself, which I hadn’t known. And I might have thought that was an invention of Shonda Rhimes for the purposes of Bridgerton. But as you write, that’s really how it happened, yes?

GOÑI: Exactly. So the Queen played an essential role in the Season. First, as it is shown in the first episode of Bridgerton, there is this presentation at court where young girls are introduced by a sponsor, usually their mother. 

COURT ANNOUNCER: Miss Prudence Featherington; Miss Phillipa Featherington; and Miss Penelope Featherington. 

GOÑI: And they are announced to the queen. In the series, it’s a little bit dramatized with some women fainting and so on. But this was a very important event. And it constituted an announcement of who was on the marriage market. And the courtship process would start from that point onwards. So given that marriage was such an important thing for the aristocracy, the Queen here had something to gain by playing this central role in the marriage market. She could choose who would be presented at the court. She would choose who would be invited to the parties. So that was a way to make sure that these aristocrats would always be aligned with her interests.

In other words, these weren’t quite “arranged” marriages but they were — to use Goñi’s term — “aligned” marriages. These aristocrats of marriageable age attended only the parties that included others in their social sphere. It was essentially a closed system. But as Goñi discovered, there came a point when this closed system temporarily opened up. The year was 1861, and for Queen Victoria it was a very bad year.

GOÑI: The year started with the death of her mother and ended with the death of her husband. Prince Albert, her husband, was a young man and was healthy, so the death was completely unexpected. And by all accounts, we know that they were very fond of each other. So Queen Victoria took it very badly. And for three consecutive years, she didn’t take part in the Season. No young girl was presented at court. No young girl was announced to the marriage market. On a normal year, around 6,000 people would attend different parties organized by the Queen. And during this three-year interruption — in 1862, for example, there is basically no royal parties organized and in the other two years of the interruption, there is only a couple of hundred invitees.

DUBNER: What was it like for you as an economist — and many economists go around hoping and praying to find some natural experiment in the data, especially an economic historian such as yourself — what was it like to discover this amazing natural experiment? 

GOÑI: It’s sad to say, but I was very glad that Prince Albert died so young.

DUBNER: Couldn’t the Season and all the balls essentially have gone on in all these other people’s homes without the Queen? 

GOÑI: The activity was greatly reduced, and it did not continue in the same way because the Queen played the central role in coordinating it. It would have been seen as quite disrespectful to continue with the show, while the Queen was mourning. 

DUBNER: So let’s say I’m Phoebe Bridgerton or some equivalent. And it’s 1862. This is my first Season. And all of a sudden, the Season disappears. What happens? 

GOÑI: So this is bad news for you because you won’t have access to all these eligible bachelors in the London Season. Probably you will attend several balls at your own country estate or travel to some other country estate for that purpose. But the amount of potential partners that you’ll meet will be much smaller. And you’ll have to settle with probably a worse match in terms of social standing and wealth. And actually what happened to most of the people who were young when the interruption took place is that they ended up marrying outside the aristocracy.

DUBNER: Goodness gracious — that is just unacceptable. Since neither you nor I come from anything remotely resembling an aristocracy, can you talk about the impact of that? Is this a family tragedy? 

GOÑI: So we have some scarce evidence from diaries and things like that. And we know that in general, marrying down was quite frowned upon. So this would be seen as quite bad news for the family. The evidence suggests that their social standing was reduced by this shock that made their daughters more likely to marry outside the aristocracy and less likely to marry a rich, wealthy landowner.

DUBNER: You write that this interruption of the Season resulted in more “class-diverse marriages.” In other words, more people, “marrying down,” we’d say. So just how “class-diverse” are we talking about here? Is this Cinderella-level diversity or something quite less drastic than that?

GOÑI: It is hard to say. Although we have very good information about the members of the aristocracy, those who don’t belong to it, in these original historical sources, they’re usually referred just as commoners. The presumption is that they were not the bottom of the society. But I’m sure there are some Cinderella stories there. 

DUBNER: Would I be incorrect if I assumed that, well, maybe these debutantes weren’t getting the sort of prestigious marriages they would have gotten otherwise, if the Season in London were continuing, but maybe they’re more likely now to marry for love, or at least based on their own personal preferences? And while that might diminish some outcomes in the future — my prestige, my wealth — maybe there are upsides to marrying for love, maybe even upsides that an economist like yourself a couple of hundred years later can’t measure. 

GOÑI: Yes. Of course measuring love and how happy a marriage is is very difficult. But we have to try to find ways to do it. One thing that I have used to proxy how happy a marriage was was the number of children that were born to the marriage after the production of an heir, which would be the duty of the marriage.

DUBNER: Okay, so once you have a male child, everything else is sort of optional, you’re saying. And you’re assuming that more children equals more love? 

GOÑI: It is, of course, a big assumption, but to some extent, that is what larger fertility could reflect. And actually, if you look at the fertility of the aristocrats that were married within their own group, especially in earlier periods, it was much lower than what a love-based, happy marriage would suggest. 

DUBNER: You write that the interruption, “increased peer-commoner intermarriage by 40 percent and reduced sorting along landed wealth by 30 percent.” So those are really big numbers. “Eventually,” you write, “this reduced peers’ political power and affected public policy in late-19th century England.” Can you give an example of how policy changed because of this marriage interruption?

GOÑI: So one important policy that was implemented in the 1870s was an expansion of state education. And this was done at a very local level. The aristocracy was powerful, and they managed to push down the taxes for education. This is a really old-school elite, especially in the 19th century. Their wealth is derived mostly from land. And there are some indications that they did not like so much the expansion of education because they were afraid that the labor force, if they become educated, could emigrate to the cities to work in higher-paid jobs. Now, in places where the aristocratic family suffered from the shock of the interruption to the Season, this happened less.

DUBNER: So in a way, this three-year interruption was really bad for those at the top in that their leverage was diminished — on aggregate, yes? 

GOÑI: Exactly. And probably it was a good thing for the rest of us. The aggregate effects and the long-run effects of the three-year interruption are relatively small. But what we can say for sure is that the existence of the London season marriage market for such a long time did help the British peerage to consolidate as an elite and that probably helped to consolidate this very high inequality.

DUBNER: So when Queen Victoria was done mourning her mother and her husband and she was back in business, this marriage market resumed just like it used to be. Is that the case? 

GOÑI: Yes. In terms of the presentations at the court, and royal parties, it was business as usual. The only difference was just that Queen Victoria was now wearing a black mourning dress. 

Before Bridgerton, before Shonda Rhimes, there was another hugely popular writer who was very interested in marriage markets.

James SHAPIRO: Shakespeare lived in an age of London merchants accumulating fabulous wealth, but they didn’t have status. 

And: how is technology — especially dating apps — shaping the modern marriage market?

FISHER: I mean, for millions of years you only met a few people in your life.

If you’re enjoying this episode, do me a favor: spread the word; tell your friends and family that they can listen to Freakonomics Radio on any podcast app, and while they’re at it, they can leave a rating or review. That’s the best way to help grow the shows you love. Thanks in advance.

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James Shapiro is an author and a scholar with a well-defined specialty.

SHAPIRO: I teach Shakespeare at Columbia and have been doing that for the last 35 years. I’m also Shakespeare scholar-in-residence at the Public Theater. 

The Public Theater, in New York, is famous for producing Shakespeare plays outdoors in the summer, in Central Park. Shapiro helps adapt these plays for modern audiences. The good news is that Shakespeare remains intensely relevant — especially if we’re talking about courtship and marriage.

SHAPIRO: Shakespeare lived in an age of entrepreneurship, of exploration, of London merchants accumulating fabulous wealth, but they didn’t have status. So their job was to marry their daughters to somebody who was a gentleman or higher up the scale. I’ll take a play and follow this line of argument — in Romeo and Juliet

Juliet, you may recall, is from the Capulet family; Romeo is a Montague. They are in love, but their families hate each other. Why?

SHAPIRO: Juliet and Romeo are both children of rich merchants. And in a way, for audiences of that play, it was attractive to have the consolidation of two wealthy, middling-class households. That’s fine. But that was not fine with Juliet’s father. He had one surviving child, and his great ambition was to move the family up a notch in the social scale. And in order to do that, he had to marry her to County Paris. 

County Paris is an aristocrat, and is Romeo’s archrival for Juliet.

SHAPIRO: Now, why would County Paris want to marry a rich guy’s daughter? As the nurse says, whoever gets Juliet’s going to have the chinks. And it’s both a sexual allusion and, let’s face it, there’s a lot of money there. And aristocratic men burned through money quickly.

Romeo and Juliet are teenagers. Shakespeare gives Juliet’s age as 13, and Romeo is repeatedly described as “young.” This was not typical for the time.

SHAPIRO: Men and women did not marry in Elizabethan times until they were, on the average, 25 years old. One of the things that people have a hard time wrapping their head around is a lot of people never got married in Shakespeare’s day. We think of everybody in the old days getting paired off, but that’s not the case. Sometimes one in six, even in some areas one in four, never married by their forties.

Why did so many people go unmarried in Shakespeare’s day? The answer has to do with, once again, marriage markets. When Romeo and Juliet had its premiere less than 10 percent of the British population lived in cities. Even if you were an aristocrat, there weren’t a lot of balls to attend — and of course most people weren’t aristocrats and most people lived on farms or in villages. And the fellow residents of that village pretty much were your marriage market. To be fair, that’s how it had been for nearly all of human history.

FISHER: For millions of years you only met a few people in your life.

That again is the anthropologist of love, Helen Fisher.

FISHER: I mean, during the dry season, they would go to permanent water holes and that’s where they would meet people. Other than that, they would be traveling with a small hunting and gathering group of about 25 people and not really meet very many new people. 

Things are a bit different now. The device on which you’re listening to this show also has the capability of connecting you to an online market of thousands, perhaps millions of eligible women and men around the world.

FISHER: All the data that I have show that about 40 percent of singles met their last first date on the Internet. Only about 25 percent met through a friend, and less than 10 percent met at a church or synagogue, or at work, et cetera.

If you go back even just a decade, the most common way to meet a romantic partner was through friends. The digital marketplace is now the clear leader — although not everyone is using it.

FISHER: I looked at those people who met on the Internet, and people who met off the Internet. And those people who met on the Internet are more likely to be higher educated, more likely to be fully employed, and more likely to be looking for a committed, long-term partnership. 

DUBNER: So when economists think about income inequality, they think that some is okay because it inspires hard work and people want to have more than others and get ahead and so on. But too much income inequality is a really bad thing because it creates all sorts of divisions and really perversions in society. When you think about marriage markets, do you think that they contribute to income inequality or other kinds of status inequality? Because if we’ve got the very highly educated marrying the very highly educated, the very well-resourced or wealthy marrying others like them, doesn’t that just continue to perpetuate the problem? 

FISHER: I think people truly misunderstand these dating services. Foremost, they are not dating services. Everybody in this business knows they are not dating services. What they are is introducing services, that’s all they do, is introduce you. And the moment that you find somebody and meet up with them — either through video chatting or in-person — you laugh the way you always did, you smile the way you always did. You assess the person the way you always did. 

DUBNER: Considering what you just said, I would think that the incentive for the firm is to provide a very broad possibility of introduction. In other words, bring all different kinds of people together. But when I look at the actual business landscape of these firms — so, Match.com, where you work, is part of the Match Group, which is a massive firm that includes many other “introduction sites,” we’ll call them, not dating sites: Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid, and so on. Why would there be all that segmentation if it weren’t trying to — I don’t want to say “limit” the sorts of people who are consorting with one another, but at least try to pre-sort them to a great degree. Is that what’s happening? 

FISHER: I think they’re just spreading out. I mean, Black People Meet, J-Date is a different one. I think that this whole industry is becoming much more segmented for obvious reasons. Life was segmented long before that. I mean, the people who lived in a little village in the middle of Sudan met other people who lived in the village in the middle of Sudan. And I do think that different kinds of sites take on certain kinds of personalities. One of the most popular dating sites, is OurTime, which is a site for people over 50. 

Some dating apps have an even tighter focus. There’s NUiT, which creates matches around your astrological sign; there’s “the dog person’s dating app,” called Dig. And some apps try to replicate the exclusivity of the London Season. The celebrity app Raya, for instance, requires a referral to join. An app called The League screens users by checking their LinkedIn profile for their educational background. Then there’s the straightforwardly named Millionaire Match.

GOÑI: Of course, it’s always a little bit dangerous to extrapolate too much from historical settings to the modern world. 

That, again, is Marc Goñi, author of the paper about the 19th-century London marriage market.

GOÑI: What my paper shows is that regardless of the preferences that these aristocrats had, the way they met each other, the way they courted, all these institutional arrangements were very important in determining their marriages. And they determined their marriages in a way that perpetuated inequality. But I think this paper has important insights when it comes to the effect that the matching technology, let’s say, all sorts of institutions that determine who do you meet, at which rate do you meet potential partners, and from which part of the society they come — it can have important consequences for marriages beyond preferences. And today, we do have several matching technologies that in some way resemble this old marriage market of the aristocracy. The assortative mating is not always a matter of choices, but it’s determined by who you meet. And usually you meet people who are similar to you.

DUBNER: But that’s my big question, really about this, is do we sort ourselves into circumstances like universities and jobs where we meet people who are similar to us because we like to be around people who are similar to us? Or is the arrow traveling at least a little bit more in the other direction? 

GOÑI: That’s a great question. There’s many settings where the marriage search takes place. where you really sort into this without knowing that you’re sorting in places with similar people and without the explicit intention to find a partner. This would be places like university. Your main decision to go there is probably not to find a spouse. But there are other settings where you definitely make this choice of who surrounds you. If you think about settings like bars.

DUBNER: So you don’t go to the kind of bar where you might meet someone who is not at all like the kind of person that you envision yourself marrying, let’s say. 

GOÑI: Exactly. That would be a more explicit marriage market, if you wish.

DUBNER: So a great deal of dating and eventually marriage these days in the U.S. and elsewhere happens on dating apps. There are many. And many of the apps have characteristics that appeal to a certain population. Some of them are very narrow characteristics. Some are broader. But then even if it’s a broader one, digital tools allow anyone to sort very, very, very specifically. So I’m curious what you can tell us about using digital tools to find prospective mates. Are they helping us find needles in haystacks, or are they more helping us find piles of needles that are already neatly sorted?

GOÑI: That’s a good analogy. So exactly. There’s two potential effects of these dating apps. The most obvious one is that they facilitate you meeting a lot of people. They facilitate encounters. And you’re able to date much more before you settle down. And this could lead to less sorting because you’re contemplating more options. Now, on the other hand, we don’t exactly know what is the algorithm that determines that I see this person or this other person? So in a sense this may also be restricting the set of people you meet to people that is more similar to you. 

DUBNER: So, Marc, I know a lot of Ph.D. economists who are married to other economists, and psychologists married to other psychologists, medical doctors. By the same argument that you’re saying that the concentration of wealth in 19th-century England was bad for society, what about the concentration of these intellects and abilities? Is that sort of assortative matching bad for society, good for society, none of our business?

GOÑI: It’s really an excellent question. On the one hand, it of course can be bad in the sense that it can perpetuate some of these distributional differences. So for example if you consider a marriage where both parents are highly educated, the child will come up very highly educated. If you consider a marriage where one parent is much more educated than the other, we also don’t know exactly how these complementarities play a role. So perhaps very brilliant children come out of this.

DUBNER: Is your girlfriend a Ph.D. as well? 

GOÑI: Yes.

DUBNER: What’s her field? 

GOÑI: It’s also economics. Yes.

DUBNER: So this is the equivalent of the aristocratic economic marriage market. You did not mate with a commoner, nor did she. 

GOÑI: Exactly. Totally. We met in a very restricted setting. It was not intentional, but—

DUBNER: Sure. Sure it wasn’t. 

GOÑI: It actually makes some of this romanticism a little bit more difficult. Because now when my girlfriend tells me that I’m the cutest man she knows, I know that she means that I’m the cutest man she’s met.

Thanks to Marc Goñi, Helen Fisher, and Jim Shapiro for teaching us today about marriage markets — and, as always, thanks to you for listening.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Neal CarruthGabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee DouglasMorgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Sources

  • Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and chief science advisor to Match.com.
  • Marc Goñi, professor of economics at University of Bergen.
  • Amalia Miller, professor of economics at the University of Virginia.
  • James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

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