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Most of the interest in non-market exchange of beauty is in its role in two-person relationships. Aside from how widespread such relationships are and their importance for procreation, they have the additional advantage of being easy to analyze—we only need to consider two people’s preferences and abilities, not three or more people’s behavior.

Gender differences are especially interesting here, with the crucial point perhaps captured in Sam Cooke’s song, “Wonderful World”:

Now I don’t claim to be an “A” student

But I’m trying to be,

So maybe by being an “A” student baby

I can win your love for me.

This 1960 song, which has been used in movies (Witness) and is still heard in elevators today, expresses a set of common beliefs about the dating market: The man believes that the woman wants success (being an “A” student), while nothing is mentioned of her skills other than the man’s implied infatuation, perhaps with her looks. The central question in this section is how beauty is exchanged in dating relationships — what each party is looking for, and how that differs by gender. That in turn lays the foundation for the more important question of the next section—how beauty is exchanged in creating a marriage.

There is nothing unique to homo sapiens in the potential for exchange of characteristics in dating and mating. Similar exchanges occur with variations in the animal world too. Assuming that the goal is to pass one’s genes on to the next generation, each party would like to demonstrate reproductive fitness in the form of health and strength. Male dung beetles grow ever larger horns, whose display attracts females because the male can use his horns to defend the tunnels where the females will lay their eggs. One might view the male dung beetle’s horns as analogous to the songwriter’s desire to become an “A” student. Presumably the female dung beetle who seems healthiest (prettiest) will attract the male dung beetles with the largest horns, maximizing each party’s chance of reproductive success.

The possibility of exchange of characteristics, and beauty in particular, was made especially vivid for me in my introductory economics class when I asked students for examples of actions undertaken by others for their own gain but that affected the student indirectly. One described the following situation. Her roommate, who she said is very pretty, had a huge poster of her boyfriend over her bed, and every day my student had to look at it from her own bed. “Why did this poster impose a negative effect on you?” I asked. She answered, “The boyfriend is really ugly.” After the uproar in the lecture hall subsided, I then asked why, if the roommate is so pretty, she dated this bad-looking guy. My student’s answer was, “He goes to Harvard.” There may be other reasons for the match; but perhaps the young gentleman was exchanging his earnings potential (under the assumption that his acceptance by Harvard signaled his earnings potential, or perhaps even that a Harvard education might make him more productive) for the roommate’s good looks.

Social psychologists have long been interested in the determinants of dating preferences and matched dates, and a few have focused on the role of looks in this exchange.5 Economists have recently gotten into this business too, and we have added some new twists to the research. The researchers have in some cases availed themselves of the immense amounts of data available from online dating sites, going far beyond small samples of student participants. Also, the preferences are placed into a framework of rationality and are inferred from actual behavior, not from expressions of what people might desire as elicited in surveys.

The role of scarcity and some hints about gender differences in the exchange of beauty are provided by a recent media controversy, popular music, and one of my favorite jokes. All illustrate how supply and demand interact to affect the chances of a match being made and the nature of what the parties exchange. The role of scarcity when there is an excess of women was suggested in 2008 by the mayor of a small North Queensland, Australia, town, who commented, “with five blokes to every girl, may I suggest that beauty-disadvantaged women should proceed to Mount Isa.”6

The effect of a shortage of men is suggested by Jan and Dean’s 1963 song “Surf City,” which talked about boys going to Surf City because there were “two girls for every boy.” At the other end of the life cycle, a woman stood up after dinner in an old-age facility and announced to the diners (among whom, as at most such residences, men were very scarce), “Whoever can guess what I’m holding behind my back can have sex with me tonight.” One gentleman yelled out, “Elephant.” The woman replied, “Close enough.” I think that says it all.