The Game Theory of Love

in Personal Essays

Boys are like deodorant.

This unlikely equation came to me while I stood, as bumblingly confused as a pre-teen at a middle school dance, amid cosmetics and candy at the local drugstore. I was struggling to choose a new anti-perspirant.  The one I applied daily had ceased to make my underarms feel powder-fresh, and the rows and rows of deodorizing product that cluttered the shelves of aisle nine offered the elusive promise of product perfection.

Boys are like deodorant.

Deodorants come in as many permutations of fragrance, substance, and brand as boys come in shapes, sizes, and summer break plans.  I faced the burdensome boon of overwhelming variety.  Did I want powder or gel? Stick or roll on? Did I want a brown-haired boy or a blonde?  A baseball player or a bookish intellectual?  Maybe I didn’t even want a guy at all. Penelope Cruz is pretty smoking…

Please don’t hold such indecision against me. I’m the child of an educator, a lawyer, and the global rise of mass consumer culture. I am, to some extent, the product of products.  Like so many other American twenty-somethings, my daily life has been characterized by a staggering amount of choice and the corresponding promise of the perfect one. Gone are the days of, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”  The shoe also needs to go with the new pants you just bought.  The shoe needs to make your cankles look less cankle-y.  It needs to be cheap but not too cheap, stylish but not too stylish.  In other words, the shoe needs to fit perfectly in order to be worth wearing. American consumer culture has guaranteed us perfectly personalized products, and we expect no less of our romantic partners.

If dating in the 21st century is like shopping, Facebook is Amazon.com—a one-stop online shop for all romantic needs.   View Facebook photos to see if a crush is aesthetically appealing.  Check a crush’s relationship status to see if he or she is in stock.  Place an order with a message or a wall post.  Track your order’s progress on his or her mini-feed.

I’m among the last candidates for someone who’d come to consider love a consumer transaction. A hippie born too late,  I had a peace sign on my retainer, doodled daisy chains in the margins of my homework, and really, truly believed that all you need is love.

But something happened.

I never asked to consider love a commodity, but it’s hard not to.  Everything is marketable in the 21st century.  These days, businessmen sell property rights to stars so distant they’ve likely already supernovaed, and crazy eBay sellers auction off ghosts—that’s right, ghosts, which, even if they do exist, are impossible to ship.  Love is among the less outrageous commodities on the market.  When even the country’s political leaders (frequently, constantly) pay for romance, the notion that people approach love in the same way that a shopper approaches the deodorant aisle is to be expected.

The economy, it seems, is the bottom line.  So, it’s no surprise that the vocabulary of economics has crept into the language of love, that economic theories can explain today’s romantics.  We speak of “emotional investments” and of singles being “on the market.”  Econ 101’s law of diminishing returns explains that the divorce rate and hookup culture is an example of portfolio diversification.  Even the Beatles’ final proclamation of love—Paul’s assurance that, “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”—can be charted with a simple supply and demand curve.

The problem is, the capitalist economy as Adam Smith envisioned it is characterized by qualities that should be antithetical to romance.  Please follow along in your textbooks:

1. The ideal market is impersonal.

True for the market economy, but not so much for the make-out economy.  Still, random hook-up culture permeates college campuses, where the exchange of such basic biographical information as a first name does not necessarily have to precede Frenching.

2. The ideal market economy is efficient.

That’s okay if you’re interested in sales, not sex.  But sex aside, efficiency as an overriding principle for romance is counterintuitive. A quickie’s quick, after all, but the satisfaction’s transient. Passion should be love’s modus operandi. And taking the scenic route, spending time rather than saving it, or any number of other inefficiencies characterize passion.

3. The ideal market economy is transparent.

Public dealing is absolutely fundamental to a functional financial economy.  Privacy, on the other hand, ought to dictate interpersonal exchanges. Still, an acquaintance of mine recently got a divorce, and her Facebook friends discovered the news when their mini feeds alerted them that she was “no longer listed as in a relationship.”  A broken-heart icon appeared next to the announcement.

Economic perfection is for stocks and bonds, not studs and broads, studs and studs, or broads and broads. The perfect financial market is an imperfect romantic market.  In fact, the whole notion of perfection—of what classical economists call a theoretical ideal and modern lovers call a romantic fantasy—is precisely what inhibits so many of us from deriving satisfaction from relationships.

So, modern love isn’t that different from the love of yore and the love of lore after all.  No, not because girls still go for professors and boys still go for freshman—though that pattern is likely to be perennial.  The more important similarity is that modern lovers, like their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, are questing after a quixotic ideal, elusive as the perfectly rational cunsumer.  The generation that first sat in theaters to watch Disney’s Cinderella surely felt the burden of finding Prince Charming.  The perfection of a fairy-tale ending has always been true love’s promise.  But perfection has also always been—and always will be—unachievable at any price.

The hope of “happily ever after” is as tempting and as unattainable as the thought of discovering the peerless anti-perspirant.  What we have yet to appreciate is that it’s also undesirable.  My parents, who will soon be celebrating their 29th anniversary, know more about love than even the most Petrarchan twenty-something.  Not every minute of their marriage has been happy. Still, when I’m at home for the ever-rarer family dinner, and my dad asks me with a dimpled smile “Doesn’t Mom look beautiful tonight?” I understand.  More than I ever could when faced with the limitless choices Rite Aid presents me, I understand the value of imperfection. This sort of value can’t be measured in GDP or GNP or in any other P, for that matter.  Its worth is too nuanced for even the most thorough economist to model, for even the most conscious consumer to appraise.

It’s also not something a twenty-one-year old can swallow.  Until I learn the lesson for myself, I, like the generation that I help form and that helps form me, will continue to shop around in the hope of finding that perfect someone. But, just between you and me: I don’t buy it.

Laura Zax is a senior in Silliman College and a Senior editor of The New Journal

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