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IAP session analyzes speed dating

So, what do men and women really look for in a date?

Economist Raymond Fisman thinks he knows. And his ideas aren't based on his own experience, though he is happily involved in a long-term relationship. On Jan. 10, for a rapt crowd at MIT, Fisman described the results of his "speed dating" experiments, which seem to confirm many of the stereotypes about what men and women want in their partners.

For instance, Fisman's study, which involved about 400 Columbia University students, found that men are less likely to date women they believe are smarter or more ambitious than they are. They also place higher value on physical attractiveness than women do.

On the other hand, women's interest in dating someone grows higher with a man's intelligence, even if they believe it exceeds their own.

"Mr. Stanford does better than Mr. Mississippi State, but Ms. Mississippi State does just as well as Ms. MIT," said Fisman.

Fisman, who is a professor of economics at Columbia, spoke at an Independent Activities Period event sponsored by MIT's Department of Economics.

Fisman said his findings would not surprise the grandmother of his partner, Ellie. Grandma Burnstein once told her granddaughter, "Never let a man think you're smarter than him. Men don't like that."

"Grandma Burnstein knew something about dating that carries forth to the present day," Fisman joked. After meeting Grandma Burnstein, Fisman made it a point to tell her how much smarter Ellie is, and "how happy that makes me."

Speed dating, along with Internet matchmaking, has become a common way for single people to meet prospective dates, Fisman said. In a typical speed dating session, each woman meets with a certain number of men for "dates" that last a few minutes each. Afterward, each participant fills out a form, marking either "yes" or "no" to indicate which of the people they met they would like to see again.

In addition to the yes/no responses, participants in Fisman's study filled out surveys rating each of their "dates" in six categories -- attractiveness, intelligence, ambition, fun/sense of humor, sincerity and shared interests -- allowing an analysis of the importance of each characteristic.

They also rated their own attractiveness before the event and after getting their match results. Fisman found that participants' measure of their own attractiveness went up or down depending on their speed dating success rate.

Fisman, who is a visiting professor at Harvard this year, normally studies corruption in poor countries -- a topic that, like dating preferences, is tricky to study because in both cases people are reluctant to tell the truth, he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 25, 2006 (download PDF).

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