Sexonomics 103 – Signaling Theory

Books have been written on this and  Econ classes spend hours, but it’s a shockingly simple idea that I feel my good friend’s husband is the perfect example of.

All guys know that girls . . . forgive me, but economists love generalization and simplification – run with me just a little bit.

All guys know that girls like the whole babies thing. Which is why you’ll occasionally here a man in a bar say to a cute girl, ‘Yeah, I like kids, they’re great.’

But does she really believe him? It took him no effort to say that, in fact he could be lying. As the effort–what economists call cost–of that sentence is nothing, so there’s not much weight behind it. He could take it a bit further, and place a few pictures on his facebook profile playing with his cousin’s kids. Or make sure he plays with kids at a picnic when the cute girls are watching. This has a slightly higher ‘cost’, or effort required, but it’s still easy to fake.

Then there’s Joel. When he needed a new car, he knew he wanted children in the next 5 or so years – long before he would sell the car he was about to buy. So he bought a minivan – before he had even met his wife. Guy wasn’t even dating at the time. Now, that’s a message that carries a lot of weight. Guys can’t easily fake that – Minivan’s are expensive, and also change the type of woman who are attracted to you.

What Joel was doing was signaling to women that he valued family in a way they would believe. He is now happily married to a beautiful woman, but specifically one who values family as much as he does. And when he picked her up in his minivan when they were dating, his minivan said more about his desire for kids than any cheesy line or facebook picture could.

There you have it – Economic Signaling Theory. It’s a fancy sounding theory, but if you’ve ever heard anyone say, ‘talk is cheap’, they are referring to the low cost of verbal signaling (talk). Similar phrases might include ‘put your money where you mouth is’. Got a great example of a phrase that suggests one person is doubtful of another’s signaling, or wants them to increase the cost of signaling so that they believe it more?

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