Picture a flock of hungry penguins gathered at the edge of an ice floe. Despite the urgency of their hunger, each individual penguin is hesitant to dive into the water: where there are small fish, bigger fish are likely nearby. And while the prospect of a meal is tantalizing, the possibility of a killer whale or Great White shark lurking beneath the surface is too much of a risk to ignore. On the other hand, if they all stay out of the water, the rookery will starve. “In such circumstances,” writes Thomas Eisenmann, “individual rationality may lead a group to forfeit attractive opportunities, for example, a predator-free meal.” Eventually, some intrepid penguin makes like Squints Palledorous and hurls himself into the water.
In mathematical game theory, situations such as these are known as first-mover dilemmas. Being the first to act often confers an advantage while also increasing risks. Being first to offer terms in a negotiation, for example, allows you control the set point. Ask for too little, however, and you could leave money on the table, whereas if you ask for too much and you might alienate the other negotiator. Betting first in a hand of poker can convey a strong hand, letting you win an uncontested pot. On the other –ahem – hand, you might be betting into someone with a made hand and losing more money than necessary. The first mover has to balance the high probability of a good result with the low probability risk of a catastrophic one.
Around Thanksgiving, I took a friend of mine out for drinks at Marvel Bar – as a University of Minnesota student from Sioux Falls, she’d never been to our flagship speakeasy. (Whenever I take someone to Marvel for their first experience, I suggest that they order the Oliveto. “Suggest” is putting it too gently: I order it for them and tell them they can trade for my drink if they don’t like it. I’ve never been asked to surrender my drink.) As we sat in a candlelit booth and sipped our drinks, she told me something that surprised me: in her entire time in college, she’d been asked out in person a single time.
“It was always through texts or Facebook messages,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “When someone finally asked me to my face, I was so surprised I didn’t even know how to respond.” My friend is pre-med, with a sneaky, dry sense of humor and a striking resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence, if Jennifer Lawrence had mahogany brown hair and a likeable personality. If I would expect any of my friends to have no shortage of fawning male attention, it’d be this one.
There’s no doubt that mobile technology, social media, and dating apps have changed the game in a major way. We have immediate access to myriad potential romantic or sexual partners at our fingertips at all times. And since apps like Tinder or Bumble reduce dating to a simple binary (swipe right or swipe left), some people have started to employ the strategy of simply liking (swiping right) every profile they encounter in order to maximize their dating pool.
At the same time, technology helps serve as a barrier to risk. The people who only swipe right take for granted that if they match with enough people, sooner or later they’ll encounter someone who is willing to put in more effort than they will. And while you only get one shot to ask someone out in person – when so very much could go wrong, from shaking hands to cracking voices to wimping out entirely – you can endlessly edit and workshop a text message until it says exactly what you want it to say. And if the answer is no, the rejection can be suffered in private dignity.
(It seems to me, though, that this is the equivalent of penguins throwing rocks in the water in the hopes that a fish will splash onto their ice floe: if you try it a thousand times, it might work once or twice. And while there’s no risk of getting torn apart by a shark, you might have to wait a while for that strategy to work out – that is, if those little splashes haven’t scared all the fish away.)
All of this information points us in the same direction: In spite of the risk, it’s in your best interest to take that risk head on. As more and more people select a risk-averse approach to dating, those willing to dive in head first differentiate themselves even further than they already would and the first-mover advantage becomes all the more significant. In game theory, this is known as the “dominant strategy.” Barry Schwartz, in The Pardox of Choice, says, “When asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.” Besides, getting torn to shreds by an orca seems a far radder way to die than slowly starving to death.