Why “tit-for-tat” might be so hard to implement in a romantic/dating context

The other day a friend with love problems described them, and I offered a solution applicable to a wide range of similar issues: tit-for-tat, in which you respond to another person’s response. If the other person is cooling off, cool off in turn; if the other person is heating up, heat up in turn. This avoids wasted effort in pursing someone unavailable and also prevents the (frequently) unattractive behavior of being too available.*

There’s a large challenge in TFT, however: it’s really hard for most of us to implement, even among people who know, intellectually, that it’s a good idea. We often want the world to arrange itself according to our wishes. In most endeavors increased effort leads to increased reward. But there is a class of endeavors—getting a job, finding romance, succeeding in book proposals—where too much effort is a negative signal that shows desperation or low status.**

In that problem class, TFT is a pretty good way of checking a sense of hope against the reality of a situation. In the real world we can’t control what other people do but we can control our reactions. That’s not a new idea but it is a really important one, and one that a lot of people (especially when they’re romantically inexperienced) fail to really understand.

I suspect that the roots of misunderstanding romantic behavior starts in childhood. When you’re a child your parents love you unconditionally and tell you that you’re special (because you are, to them), and your teachers try to help you (for the most part) and encourage you even when you fuck up. If you show your parents or family or teachers that you’re really trying hard or care or whatever they usually reward you.

But eventually you hit puberty, get some hair on your beanbag or a righteous set of jugs, and you start splashing around with dating. Except in that domain a lot of people you may be interested in don’t care about you no matter what you do or how much you care. You care so much—why don’t they? If you’re overly demonstrative in this, however, at best you’ll be taken advantage of and at worse you’ll be ignored.

smoking-0730The real solution is to realize that you can’t force other people to be romantically (or otherwise) interested in you. In a romantic context, extended ambiguity sucks, and one effective way to end it may be to introduce a rival. Find some guy or girl and make sure the real target knows. If that doesn’t spur the love interest to action nothing will, because it says, “Hey, either take this spot or lose it.”

That’s not quite TFT, but it is one way to force decisions.

In books and movies, almost no one employs TFT, and things tend to work out anyway—but that’s because most books and movies are fantasies that give us what we wish were true, rather than what is true. Which may be why inexperienced people have so much trouble: their only guidelines are really poor.

Most of the stuff I imbibed from pop culture between birth and age 16 or so, for example, did absolutely nothing to prepare me for the real world and if anything it was harmful. Part of this was my own fault—I had a penchant for pulp fantasy novels in which not only the dragons were imaginary but so too were the female characters—but not all of it. Consequently, almost everyone has to discover the same lessons for themselves, over and over again, often without any useful guidance whatsoever. Parents are of little help because their own interests diverge in systematic ways from their children’s interests. Peers are often equally ignorant. Non-parent adults by and large don’t interact with highly inexperienced teens or early 20-somethings. So people are left with pop culture and its wish-fulfillment fantasies.

There are some people building a theory of reality—like Esther Perel or Roosh—but little of it has filtered into the culture at large so far. Maybe it never will.

* I’m not the first to notice these issues: “Sexual Attraction and Game Theory” popped up in my RSS feed about a week after the discussion.

** This post had its origins in a much more specific (and explicit!) email, but it’s been generalized and (somewhat) sanitized.

Is Amazon.com’s Marketplace encouraging buyers to scam sellers by filing a refund claim?

I’ve been selling miscellaneous books on Amazon.com for years, and in the last three months three people have filed requests for refunds or sent messages claiming that their items never arrived. That’s a big problem because the cheapest way to ship books and similar items is through the Postal Service’s Media Mail. Big sites, like eBay, solve this problem by letting buyers rate sellers and sellers rate buyers, but Amazon only lets buyers rate sellers—sellers can’t rate buyers. Sellers have to ship the item and hope for the best, which worked fine until recently, or add a confirmation number, which increases costs to the point that selling books isn’t really worth it for me.

Someone claiming one item didn’t show up could be chalked up to USPS, or bad luck, or whatever. Two could be a coincidence. Three makes me think of enemy action: buyers heave learned to game Amazon’s system.* Looking around the Internet makes it apparent that problems like mine aren’t so unusual bad stories are more common than I would have imagined before I had this problem.

Looking back at the problems I’ve had shows that the buyers are systematically weird. In one case, the name of the person contacting me for a refund didn’t match the name of the person to whom the book was shipped (in most cases, Amazon encourages or requires buyers to contact the seller before filing a refund claim). Another message said, “Recipient has not received the item,” which is curious: most people would say, “I haven’t receive the book.” “Recipient has not received the item” is generic enough to be a bot. The third person has a U.S. address but doesn’t actually appear to live in the United States.

The only conclusion I can draw are that medium-priced items (in the $10 – $30 range) probably aren’t worth selling on Amazon: they’re expensive enough that adding a confirmation number makes them uneconomical, but not so expensive that a confirmation number is a necessity and a small percentage of the price.

Amazon could reduce this problem by providing symmetrical buyer / seller feedback. But Amazon presumably doesn’t want sellers to cancel orders to unproven buyers, and it’s still possible to game feedback systems (as eBay users have discovered). Nonetheless, I sent Amazon a couple of e-mails about the issue, and someone at Amazon did reply to eventually say, “I would also like to let you know that we do have a team that checks on the buyer’s account for any fraudulent activity and take the necessary action on them.” Still, buyers could file claims only on the occasional item. I’m happier knowing that someone at Amazon is at least thinking about the problem. Amazon, however, is a notoriously data-driven company, and I can’t see them taking action unless sellers stop selling on Amazon.

I’m tempted, in the name of science, to buy a moderately expensive item and then claim it never showed up, or showed up damaged, to see if Amazon will refund the money, and, if so, how many times I could do this before Amazon boots me. But I won’t for obvious reasons.

* This is of course a reference to Goldfinger’s rules about coincidence. I should also point out that the items shipped all had normal return addresses; none of them came back to me.

Fool Me Once: Hustlers, Hookers, Headliners, and How NOT to Get Screwed in Vegas — Rick Lax

The only person being fooled in Las Vegas is the one who willfully wants to be fooled. That’s not quite the lesson, to the extent there is one, of Rick Lax’s Fool Me Once, but it’s an obvious moral to take from a book about moving to Vegas after law school and being something like a flaneur observing the scene (if there are other things going on, like work, they’re not part of the story). Vegas only works on you to the extent you let it, and for all of Las Vegas’ marketing and sexual innuendo, the city is really built on getting you to believe that it’s okay or even wise for you to lie to yourself about things you should know. You know, for example, that hookers still charge; the house always wins in gambling; you can run all you want and still not leave yourself behind.

Fool Me Once describes this dynamic. The chapters are vignettes with recurring themes: The hot roommate Oxana appears; a non-relationship with a girl named Zella culminates in a three-night hookup between her other shags, much like that one weekend you had in college; being a magician appears, disappears, and reappears; quasi life lessons come from a hooker named Kiana. The major weakness of Fool Me Once is its lack of a main narrative thread, since one section has little to do with another. This doesn’t make individual moments weaker, but one does start to wonder whether the book is going in any particular direction. Although I don’t wish to spoil the end, the answer is probably obvious. Still, parts are clever and the book is pretty funny: “My fellow law school graduates went off to Europe to ‘find themselves,’ ” and an asterisk says “I’m pretty sure this is code for do drugs.”

Elsewhere, a few sentences capture what hot clubs are like, or aspire to be like, and why they’re so irritating unless you’re “Girls Only,” which I never am: “JET had four separate lines: one for nobodies, one for people on the list, one for ‘Girls Only,’ and one for VIPs. The lines snaked and weaved and did everything else lines could do except move forward.” Better to realize this and understand the system than complain about it. Later, we find that “Men can’t comprehend that when it comes to monitoring professional sporting teams, I don’t have the attention span of a Buddhist monk on Ritalin.” I like the juxtaposition of images even more than I like the idea of someone who doesn’t care much about sports, since I don’t either. I reference “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area” from The Onion when the topic arises, since becoming rapturously involved in a group of large men I’ve never met, joined contractually together only by larger salaries to chase a ball doesn’t appeal to me. I understand that sports voyeurism functions as a form of social bonding and displaced primeval small group formation, but that doesn’t make sports any more tedious to watch (as opposed to playing, which I like).

Here’s a sample of one moment from our friendly hooker, Kiana, who says, “Vegas will be good for you. [. . .] It teaches you how the world works. But until you figure things out for yourself, here’s a general rule: If you think somebody you’re interested in is sleeping with somebody else, they are.” Statements about “how the world [supposedly] works” usually say more about the people making the statement than they do about the world. The world works differently for many of us, depending on what we show we value, and for hookers who probably see a lot of married men coming through town on business, the world probably looks quite different than it does for many, but not all, of the rest of us.

Such supposed wisdom is cheap: everyone thinks they know how the world works, but no one actually does, with the possible exception of physicists, who as a group probably don’t spend huge amounts of time gaming clubs in Vegas. A chapter is titled “How I’d Gone from Studying for the Illinois Bar Exam to Cavorting with Las Vegas Prostitutes and Con Men in Such a Short Period of Time.” The answer is pretty obvious: he flew or drove, which doesn’t take very long from anywhere in the lower 48. Neither prostitutes nor con men are hard to find, as long as they think you have money.

Lax has an eye for status distinctions and how they’re constructed, although he doesn’t talk about the subject as much as he might. For example, he tells us in a footnote, “Strippers pride themselves on not sleeping with guys for money; call girls pride themselves on not getting naked before large groups of men.” I believe it: people are very good at deluding themselves into thinking they can put someone nominally “below” them, even if the “below” in this case relies on female sexual fears. Going on Lax’s interest in deception (which becomes more nominal as the book goes on), I would guess the call girls are being more honest in the service they provide.

Lax mentions the Las Vegas motto of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas:”

[. . .] the ‘What happens’ ad campaign’s implication is crystal clear: If you come to Las Vegas and gamble away your children’s college fund and cheat on your wife with, say, two prostitutes you meet at the Palms food court [sic], the city’s tourism board will credit your bank account and fly you home in a time machine so you can un-cheat on your wife and preserve the sanctity of your marriage. That message hits home with a lot of people; every year 40 million visit Las Vegas, and do their best to hang on to their money in the process.

Does it still counts as “deception” if we know we’re going to be deceived? As the way I put it implies, the answer is “no.” Maybe Vegas helps us let out the person we want to be, but more likely it encourages a slightly different mindset than one might have otherwise (more on that later). Still, even as Vegas flouts its supposed difference, Fool Me Once punctures the bravado. There is a certain amount of ordinariness, despite how Vegas is supposed to be ludicrous; Lax dates a girl and says:

Zella seemed to really like me, but judging from what she told me about her ex-boyfriends, she also seemed to have really bad taste in men. I was careful not to discuss her most recent ex or the breakup [. . . ] We talked a lot about her and Austin [Zella’s boss at a club]. About what a strange, demanding guy he was. And the more she told me about him, the more worried I got.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl who said she has great taste in men; all of them seem “to have really bad taste in men.” Almost all of us who date have a “most recent ex” or breakup. Very few people love their bosses, primarily because in many circumstances bosses have interests that are antithetical to the employees: bosses need or want more work out of employees and employees need or want more money out of bosses. Many of us tell similar stories because the incentives we face cause the stories to turn out like Zella’s. Women often find indifferent bad boys who exhibit social proof and have game attractive for short-term flings but find them exasperating in longer relationships, then announce their “bad taste in men” as if that’s a surprise—when it’s actually a conflict between short- and long-term desires. This dynamic appears to be common throughout the dating world; maybe Vegas amps it somewhat, but the problem again remains built into relationships.

Lax describes some of the ways deception works and how people lie to each other. But lying is partially a function of repeated interactions with people over time, and William Flesch’s excellent book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction describes some of the ways deception, the punishment of deception, and signaling work in narrative—and in life. One of the most successful strategies that game theory describes is called “tit-for-tat,” which means that you react to others primarily based on how they present to you. I suspect that most of the world actually plays variations on the tit-for-tat game: if you are mostly honest with others, they will mostly be honest with you. If you are mostly dishonest with others, and looking for dishonesty in others, you will mostly find it, and the optimal way to avoid dishonesty is to punish those who defect from the honesty game by refusing to interact with them. This is probably the most evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), and it ensures that authentic knowledge of real dishonesty means that most people will refuse interaction with the dishonest.

Furthermore, the “costly signals” in Flesch’s book and evolutionary biology in general are those that are hardest to fake because they’re expensive, or costly. The canonical example is the peacock’s tail, which can only be as large and beautiful as it is if the bird itself is very healthy and has excess calories to burn. An example closer to Fool Me Once might be the much reviled “bottle service:” most guys can’t really afford $500 for a $30 bottle of booze, so buying bottles is a more honest signal of wealth than, say, claiming to be wealthy.

Still, if you combine costly signaling with one-off transactions (especially those of a sexual nature), you begin to get Las Vegas. As Lax implicitly points out, tit-for-tat strategies don’t apply if you consciously seek out dishonesty, which is basically the purpose of Las Vegas: cultivated dishonesty in which you know that most people are lying to you in some form, which in turn enables you to lie to most people without normal consequences if you lie to someone who is basically operating on a normal tit-for-tat level. I think this is basically why I found Vegas more boring than not: in order to exit the market for dishonesty, I had to leave the city. I think I understood this dynamic intellectually before I went, but it’s one thing to understand it intellectually and it’s another to have it spangling you everywhere you look.

Lax notes this tendency, although he doesn’t wrap it in the language of game theory and evolutionary biology, as I do:

The city is filled with fakers, from celebrity impersonators to magicians. From casino hosts who tell high rollers that they’d ‘be happy to’ oblige their most obnoxious, demeaning requests to gambling addicts who tell their spouses they don’t have gambling problems. From strippers who, for a price, will shed their clothes and pretend that everything you say is charming and hilarious to escorts who, for a price, will pretend that everything you say is charming and hilarious and then shed their clothes and then sleep with you.

No wonder so many people hate Las Vegas.

I went to Las Vegas for the first time a few weeks ago (my brother got a lot of mileage out of telling people that I’m 27 and visiting Vegas for the first time; most responded with mock astonishment; I shrugged). If Vegas is “filled with fakers,” so is everywhere else: perhaps it has more magicians, strippers, and hookers per capita than elsewhere, but the essence of being one of those things (as well as being a novelist) remains. The major difference is that in Las Vegas, faking is institutionally encouraged in the form of casinos. But you can find gambling anywhere, if you want to seek it out. One could view going to Vegas as a form of seeking it out. And it’s never been hard to find people who will “pretend” sexual interest in you “for a price,” but something about travel makes people more willing to lie to others or themselves about what they’re doing and why. Self-deception and its cousin hypocrisy are so common that they begin to seem like part of that elusive animal, human nature, which so many commentators and philosophers chase but so few manage to shoot, let alone bring down.

“So many people hate Las Vegas” because hate is one way we punish defectors: by castigating them in vile terms, we try to convince others to stay away and activate our own repulsion system. Hate is a very expensive emotion: I went to Vegas, and although the above makes it obvious that I don’t love the place, I don’t hate it either, perhaps because I understand why it exists and that it fills a need. Lax gets some of that too: he says “I don’t hate deception and deceivers, though. In fact, in a strange way I’m drawn to them.” I’m drawn to them too, but more as an object of study and interest than anything else. Maybe the above criticism of Vegas stems in part from the fact that I’m not a particularly skilled deceiver, and whatever skills I possess are poorly suited for the Vegas / club / bar environment, where I’ve tended to do reasonably okay but not fabulously well. But if others privilege an environment where I don’t thrive, I probably should “hate” that environment as a way of discouraging others from entering it. But I would rather understand things than hate them, and I might lie to myself by saying that I understand why people fake things.

In the clubs, I think most people are dishonest, and their skill at dancing is consistently low, but there’s basically no penalty for it or reward for skilled dancing. In contrast, at salsa clubs or ballroom events, the penalty for low dancing skill and an unwillingness is a dearth of partners. The only major exception is, as in Vegas clubs, very attractive girls, who will still find partners who are often skilled dancers. A lot of the girls in Vegas weren’t good dancers. I’m not an especially good dancer, but at least I’ve learned enough to do more than grind, which was great as a 15-year-old at youth group but becomes somewhat tedious more than a decade later.

There’s this whole Vegas mythos that’s been encouraged by gangsters, writers, and corporations; the “What happens” campaign is an example. By writing this post and reading Fool Me Once, I’m partially reinforcing the mythos even as I pretend to reveal what’s beneath.

Despite all that, if someone asked me to go back again, I would.

The reason Lax gives for becoming interested in deception isn’t especially convincing: a girl he’s dating falls for a con man who offers her a dubious paralegal job that obviously doesn’t exist and probably is a setup to acquire sex. After this experience, Lax says that “my innate fear multiplied” and that “I’m terrified of being conned and I don’t want to be taken advantage of [. . . .]” But the circumstance that ignites this fear is so preposterously obvious that Lax, like the reader, knows it’s a setup. This is a bit like saying I never want to fly commercial airlines again because my buddy’s homemade hang glider resulted in injury: the difference in magnitude and kind between source and reaction are so large as to make the comparison spurious. Like Las Vegas. Like many other things, if you care to look for them. Lax addresses the issue:

I don’t think I was being overly paranoid. If you stop and think about how much deception there is in the world—in business, in advertising, in media, in politics, in romance—I think you’ll agree that my fear was justified.

I don’t agree: there is a certain amount of “deception” in the world, which one can find without looking very hard (it’s probably an ESS to lightly deceive), but deception is often enough a product of people trying to shade things rather than people trying to con you outright, as happens to the girl chasing the phony paralegal job. There’s a difference in kind between her experience and someone in a law firm implying the firm is more important than it is in order to motivate employees. The passage quoted above might be implausible, but it functions as an excuse to start the book with some kind of purpose, and though that purpose is lost, it still brings up a useful point: If we’re this worried about deception, we should react by not reading Fool Me Once, which contains this disclaimer in the front matter:

While the events described in this book are essentially true, I changed the names and identifying characteristics of certain individuals. In other cases, I used character composites. I also reconstructed dialogue and altered details of certain events, including their timing and location.

“Essentially true” might be another way of saying “not true.” “Character composites,” “reconstructed dialogue,” “altered details”—these are all synonyms for “made up.” If you stop and think about how much deception there is in the world of writing, I think you’ll agree that my fear of being taken by a lying author is justified. If we apply Lax’s standards of paranoia to his own work, the logical reaction is to stop reading it and read fiction, which we at least know is “made up”—unless, of course, it uses copious detail from “real life” to make its point, in which case I guess we can’t trust it, either. The argument about fiction’s relationship with reality goes very far back, to at least Don Quixote if not earlier (see Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations On Quixote for more on that subject; for the novel in general, various theorists have discussed this, including Watt in The Rise of the Novel and others who write about the enchantment of Romance).

The basic problem is that radical skepticism leads one to think in paradoxes, like there is no truth, including this statement, which therefore invalidates itself. It leads one to question all epistemology, and it leads one towards Descartes’ seventeenth century formulation; as Tom Sorell describes it in Descartes: A Very Short Introduction, “In the First Meditation Descartes makes himself doubt that he has an idea of any really existing thing. He rejects as false all his beliefs about material objects, even his faith in the reality of simple material natures.” But that point of view leaves us essentially nowhere: it’s like philosophers who sit around, decide there is no such thing as reality, and then go to lunch. That strain of thinking led towards pragmatism, which argues that what really matters is what ideas cause us to do differently.

Most of us have a reasonably pragmatic relationship to the truth: we know that Lax’s girlfriend is being conned, as does Lax, as should his girlfriend (unless she is willfully deceiving herself, which might otherwise be called stupidity—and the optimal way to deal with people we think stupid is often to exit the market, so to speak, with them). We also know that doubting the the truth of anything is “being overly paranoid,” which is why Lax has to tell us that he “thinks [we’ll] agree” that his fear is justified. We won’t, and claiming we will points to the fear we won’t. A professor once told me (or was it to an entire class? Memory is awfully faulty) that anytime a student writes something is “obviously” or “clearly” true, he looks more closely at the proposition being argued, because something marked as obvious isn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t need to be marked. Show me what you fear and I’ll show you what you lack, as the cliche goes. Or something like that.

Fortunately, this pragmatic philosophy also means that I’m inclined to accept Lax’s caveat: the events probably are essentially true, unless he’s pulling a James Frey or really lying to us. But I have no way to tell, and if I find out he is, I’ll put a disclaimer at the top of this post saying that he’s a liar and that you shouldn’t read his book. In short, I’ll punish him for the transgression, which I would find a significant one. But unless the lie is really egregious, I’ll let him go because he can point to the disclaimer that says he might be lying to me, but only in minor ways—much like pretty much anyone in a serious relationship is accepting that their partner has probably fudged at least a little in their past, putting an orange filter over the bright white stage lights of life. Whether we decide something is a serious transgression or minor quibble is mostly a matter of pragmatism, and it varies by person. Lax argues he’s not being overly paranoid, but I think he is—and I think you’ll agree with me, based on this post, or based on reading his book yourself.

Economics joke of the day: the kindness of Milton Friedman

“. . . It isn’t axiomatic in economics that people are relentlessly selfish. . . . Everybody agrees that money isn’t everything. Even Milton Friedman used to be kind to animals and give money to charity.”

That’s from Ken Binmore’s Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction, which I like for its British cheek and dislike because I wish it had more detail.

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