The rationality of Valentine’s Day

8:20 am - February 15th 2009

by Chris Dillow    

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Paul Walker says Valentines day is irrational. Giving a woman money, he says, is Pareto-superior to dinner and flowers.
Now, I’m not famed for understanding women. But my hunch is that a man who says: “I can’t be bothered with that Vally day bull. Here’s a £100 – get yourself another pair of shoes,” will not be getting any action for a while.

Giving women what they want is rational. Some women want romantic gestures. And this demand can be rational, especially for a woman who is looking for commitment. I say this for four reasons:

1. The peacock tail effect. Peacocks have elaborate tails because these signal genetic fitness. Similarly, a man who spends money on Vally day is signalling his ability as a provider: “look, I can offer you so much that I can afford to fritter money away on gestures.”

2. Investment in commitment. Love can be modelled as an addiction; the more time a couple spends together, the more likely they are to stay together. Dinner together is therefore an investment, in a way that letting the laydee go shopping whilst you watch the rugby on TV is not.

3. Noise. If a woman is looking to settle down with a man, she wants to learn about him to be sure he’s The One. However, a man who rejects the social norm of Vally day increases uncertainty about who he is. The woman thinks: “if he rejects this cultural norm, what other norms does he reject. What sort of guy is this?” Her noise-signal ratio rises.

4. Rationality as counter-signalling. If a woman is looking for commitment, she’ll not want a narrow utility maximizer, because such a man will leave her the moment a better offer comes along.

There is, I think, a general lesson here. Although Vally day is daft if understood in narrow instrumental terms, it makes economic sense if we interpret rationality more widely. Could it be that Paul’s mistake is a common one among economists, of construing rationality too narrowly, and being too quick to see irrationality?

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments

Oh. My. Bob.

Honestly, I am too hungover from my birthday party (I specify to avoid assumptions I was drinking last night for any other reasons) to actually deconstruct this, but right now I;kk just say that the sexism inherent in this post, Paul’s post, the linked Times article, in fact any discussion I’ve ever seen about St. Valentines is enough to drive me right back on the drink.

This is strikingly reminiscent of the whole deadweight loss at Christmas debate- i.e. the claim that Christmas present-giving is massively inefficient because everybody exchanges lots of money for presents that the other party doesn’t really want (and even if they do could have bought anyway) and receives equally unsatisfying gifts back in return.

As obviously true for a lot of cases as it is demonstrably untrue for others… the clear reply is that for many present-exchanges the sentimental value of the gift being bought pushes preferences for it through the roof: so people ascribe a ‘cash-value’ to the gift far higher than its actual cost. The trend being, strongly and unsurprisingly, that gifts from significant others are valued far higher than cash value and people less close far less. (There are various other explanations given for there being gains from present-buying: individuals often wanting frivilous luxury objects, say, but not feeling justified in buying it for themselves and so being glad of some-one else buying it and saving the cognitive dissonance).

Clearly Valentines Day gifts would fall strongly into the above category, of gifts that would maximise overall satisfaction.

I’m not too sure about some of the offered reasons though: the peacock tail effect/signalling committment surely explains why women respond to big investments by the man but ex hypothesi if there were only these factors at play then the women should appreciate him writing her a huge cheque of the same value as the roses. So we shouldn’t think of Valentines Day practise as being purely holistically rational- in the sense of being behaviour required by the two parties trying to select and keep the best partner. A lot of it follows from other ‘irrationalities,’ like the aversion to explicitly exchanging cash for services, cf ‘You were wonderful last night darling, I’ve made you breakfast in bed’/”You were wonderful… here’s a tenner.”

Thank you, Spock. Any more rational economic interpretations of the female brain you wish you elaborate on today?

You have misunderstood the peacock’s tail . It is not a signifier of genetic fitness although the parasite theory suggest this is possible the beginning of it . The key point to understand the genetic coding for a large and lustrous tail is inherited with the predisposition to find such an item irresistible ( either or expressed or not ).
I am not up the maths but there is a lot of it and the conclusion is that once underway this self reinforcing system will cause an explosive effect. Interestingly the ideal tail is a great deal larger than the real tail and this has been shown by attaching fake tails inducing a sex bomb super attracter behaviour . The same thing has been observed by painting a larger orange patch on certain varieties of Newts . The selective pressure for larger tails on an Island where there is little predation will predominate such as in Birds of Paradise . Other phenomena of this sort are gigantism elaborate mating rituals and so on .In other environments the huge tail will run foul of the being caught and eaten , ie the more straightforward fitness we are accustomed to understanding. That the feature itself is arbitrary can be demonstrated by the same process applying to ultra small tails observable in other species .
There is therefore no rational explanation of the peacock’s tail the explanation is to be found in the system of genetic inheritance of which it is an expression. Incidentally this sexual selection theory which is well established an not disputed has fascinating implications for what we might refer to as the large penised ape .
Humans have two features that are highly suspicious from a a normal selection point of view

1 A large penis erected by a inefficient pump system quite unlike the small bony item sported by our disappointing near relatives the gorillas . This may have been subject to similar explosive sexual selection

2 More importantly a mental ability especially in language that , for the primordial man was something akin to being a cheetah able to run at a thousand miles an hour. In fact the very obvious fact that humans had no reasons to be able to invent proton accelerators in order to forage is one of the problems people raised with Darwin. Darwin was far far ahead in this area of theory in fact and already onto the possible answer

It is possible then that the most distinctive features of human beings are the result of explosive sexual selection perhaps especially acting on language . This has fascinating implications on the nature of man and woman . By my better use of language and deeper understanding I am sending a signal to likely mates that I am a superior male to , for example ,Chris Dillow or perhaps not . By his supposed concern for the under privileged Sunny Hundal is actually advertising his male dominance , not very well in my view but the sexual motive is all too obvious from the unrelenting machismo which we mighty silver backs find so tiring .

In economic theory this has some parallels in consumer fetishism or perverse demand curves in a very loose way

Of course whatever theory we invent for explaining the reason for love it will not explain the feeling of it . For that e the scientist is inadequate as he is in most important matters

Why do you assume that men would be the ones who wouldn’t celebrate Valentines? In my house, it’s

I don’t understand why you would think it’s reasonable to start citing simple animal behaviour or aspects of natural selection in other species to explain complex human dating rituals. Women aren’t peahens – Each of us are unique, social beings, with a set of experiences that in no way relates to any bird on earth.

Good luck getting a date.

I’m with Debi on this, but I will just pick up on ONE thing: as far as I am concerned a man who spends money on Vally day is doing the exact opposite of signalling his ability as a provider; he’s signalling his complete rank stupidity because he waits for exactly the WRONG time to buy useless items – i.e. the time when they have been marked up in price.

A large penis isn’t for attracting mates, its for scaring away competition.

At least that’s what I use mine for.

Incidentally, if gay people celebrate Valentines Day this would suggest its not all about proof of the ability to provide for children.

Oooh shatterface, are you rejecting a cultural norm there? Be careful, that might impair your ability to attract credulous, ovine women who behave like evolutionary psychologists expect them to do!

Sir, if you try to rationalise Valentines Day – or anything else that comes to the prism of romance, romantic love, the [very] complex human dating rituals – you will fall flat on your face each and every time. Women and men are different – equal in stature, or should be, but different beings made up of very different compositions.

If you just present a woman with a nicely enveloped cheque for 100 quid she will look at you as she would look at a axe murderer, the same value in roses she will smile and think that you are a very nice guy. Do that on a spur of the moment throughout the year – wait and see what happens.

Peacocks and peahens – *shakes head in disbelief*.

Will: or she might think you’re a smarmy twat with more money than sense. You see, the thing is women, rather like men, ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS. We don’t all think the same, and there is no sure fire way to please us.

Jennie – I know, I have been married 3 times.

Women don’t know what they want – they only know what they don’t want, how giving them anything can be rational is beyond me. The extension of your pareto analysis by the way, is that prostitution is legitimate…………………….

Can I please resign from being male, please? I’m not at all keen to share a gender with these people…

You see, the thing is women, rather like men, ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS. We don’t all think the same, and there is no sure fire way to please us.

Well, yes and no. Everyone’s an individual… as everyone likes to think. But people also behave in remarkably predictable ways.


Whatever happened to Misogynist comments will be deleted?

Sunny: I’d pick an arbitrary fact about you and try to determine your behaviour based on it, but you would rightly get upset about it.

Why is it acceptable to do that to women, as opposed to bald people, for example?

Debi: I suspect that only applies if the post itself doesn’t positively encourage misogynist bollocks.

No, Sunny, that statement isn’t a ‘yes and no’ statement, it’s absolutely true. Women really *are* all individuals, and there really *isn’t* a universal way to please them. If there were, the fact would have become very widely known (but then, maybe all those emails I get from oddly-named people are just trying to be helpful, and they *do* know the trick).

However, one thing that I’ve found to be a universal way to *dis*please women (or at least all those women worth talking to) is to make assumptions about their tastes based solely on the shape of their genitalia…

18. the a&e charge nurse

We may all be individuals, but given that knowledge consists of finite models of an infinitely complex reality, how can we explain that it is still most of the time reliable?
Survival in a variable environment requires an internal model whose complexity (variety) matches the complexity of the environment that is to be controlled.
The reduction of the infinite complexity of the sensed environment to a finite map requires a strong mechanism of categorization.

A measure of cognitive complexity (C) is defined, which quantifies the
average amount of trial-and-error needed to find the adequate category. C can be
minimized by “probability ordering” of the possible categories, where the most
probable alternatives (“defaults”) are explored first. The reduction of complexity by
such ordering requires a low statistical entropy for the cognized environment. This
entropy is automatically kept down by the natural selection of “fit” configurations. The
high probability, “default” cognitive categorizations are then merely mappings of
environmentally “fit” configurations.

Still with me………………………no, thought not.

Chargey, that’s fine so long as everybody concerned recognises that “probability” is not a pseudonym for “certainty”.

I see comment #12 is still there…

“The A&E Charge Nurse” Of course I’m still with you, as I’m sure everyone else is. Perfectly straightforward cybernetic argument for the most partt – all you’ve done in the first chunk is restate Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety.

The problem is that you’re saying that cognitive strategies are selected by an evolutionary process, which they’re not. The only way round that is to evoke the concept of ‘memes’, but since the concept of the meme is merely a bad bit of pseudoscience created by analogy to a fundamentally flawed take on evolution the best you can say is that the *process of modelling the environment* *MAY* be selected for, rather than that models of the environment *are* selected for, and thus your entire argument falls down. Which makes sense intuitively, as otherwise mental illness and other inaccurate maps of reality wouldn’t be so prevalent.

Which is not to say that there is no truth in the platitude your argument reduces to – “how people think depends on their experiences, and most people will thus think in similar ways”. But please note that that is the average *person*. While there are real differences in male and female experiences, they are nothing like as great as the similarities…

In other words – you’re wrong.

Strange thing is, every woman I’ve been out with knows precisely what makes me happy.

(Also, your ‘given’ depends on an infinite universe, which would go against all understanding of physics from the last century or more, and an assumption that that universe contains infinite information (it is fundamentally irreducible) which would seem to say we cannot possibly understand anything without being identical to that thing. Which is wrong.)

(ref: 18) Surely individuals who copy+paste the literature (or other works) should cite them.

24. the a&e charge nurse

Not my words I’m ashamed to say, Andrew.
See the erudite Heylighen – ‘The evolutionary basis for cognitive complexity reduction’.

But YOU seem to have a handle on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’…………………………well done.

It goes without saying that few would be interested in a couple of lightweights slogging out a turgid rehash of the ‘Selfish Gene’ or any of the other science-for-beginners publications.

Suffice to say we all rely on forms of shorthand from time to time not least because they may bestow an evolutionary benefit such as avoiding a potential predator or finding a potential mate.

25. the a&e charge nurse

Just got to your post, ukliberty.

I hope 24 meets your exacting standards – please let me know if you require any further supporting evidence.

26. Peter Mandelson's Wife

PM’sW: that was actually the post that made me stop reading Chris’s blog and vow to never go back there. Apparently it was supposed to be funny… I really need to do my post on humour, and why it’s funny to attack the powerful, but not the people who are routinely attacked anyway.

# 15 – exatly – whatever happened to it – it’s been censored. Define “Misogynist ” I dare you.

A&E charge nurse is right – as any first year psychology undergrad would be able to explain, we all think in prototypes, otherwise (to cut a very long congnitive modelling story short) we would all be dribbling idiots, unable to comprehend the world around us, like new born babies every day of our lives. One consequence of this is that we “load” certain assumptions about categories of people when we encounter an example of that category (what some call stereotyping) , rather than considering their complexity/diversity/individuality, every milliscond of the day. Life is quite literally too short to do that.
This conginitive process is not optional, it is culturally invariant and thus cannot be a consequence of social “conditioning”, nor is it conscious or controllable. As any number of experiments have shown we all have “prejudices”, the left simply describe theirs differently, claim to be concious of them, or are just in denial about them.

To give a practical example are any of the women on here seriously telling me they don’t think that all men have anything in common/have any predictable behaviours ??


Are you incapable of using a dictionary, Matt? Or is your ability to do so hampered by whatever it is that makes you think “lots of people employ stereotypes” is equivalent or leads to “stereotypes are useful and accurate descriptors of reality”? We may all have prejudices: the difference is that some people are capable of recognising them as such, and don’t try to build actual arguments on them.

Sure, I’ll take the bait: I am seriously telling you that I cannot think of a single behaviour that is unique to men and universal to all men. What did you think I would say?

(Shatterface #21: Every woman I’ve ever been out with has known exactly what makes me happy, too! But then, I do have impeccable taste in women.)

I don’t “think that lots of people employ sterotypes” science has shown it to be true. Whether or not it’s an accurate representation of reality, or whether you consider it usefull is

A) As relevant as considering the “usefullness” of the weather when it is an unalterable given
B) Depends on your conception of “reality”

I didn’t say “unique to all men and universal to all men”. Perhaps you might understand me better if I used the traditional (feminist) metaphor that goes something like ” men are like pebbles, all different but all posessing the same essential quality of pebblehood”. You can of course subsitute the word “men” for any category. Statements such as “men are more likely to watch football than women” or “women are more likely to be intersted in emotions than systems” follow from this and become widely accepted “facts” about the world. The fact that some women like football and some men are interested in emotions does not alter the validity of the statements, any more than the existence of left handed people alters the validity of the statement that most people are right handed.

Bless you, Matt. Science has shown nothing of the sort. You’re free to try and present me with studies that demonstrate that women make relationship decisions based on Valentines day and men consider this a sacrifice, but if you’re going to use phrases like ‘science has proven’, you should be aware that appeals to authroity like that rarely work when you’re engaging with an actual scientist.

You know, the kind of person who can draw a distinction between higher frequencies of behaviour and distinct behavioural differences. Or who appreciates that just because left handed people aren’t a majority, they should be ignored and belittled in every circumstance.

Sure, I’ll take the bait: I am seriously telling you that I cannot think of a single behaviour that is unique to men and universal to all men. What did you think I would say?

I was going to say, “leaving the toilet seat up”, but I was trained to leave it down, so it isn’t universal.

If you’re an “actual scientist” then you will have heard of Rumelheart, Mc Clellend, Loftus, Miller and practically every cognitive psychologist worthy of the name since WW2/the decline of behaviorism? I’ll go home and dig them out. But I think you’re deliberatly mis interpreting what I said. I never claimed anything about women making decisons based on valentines day (that was Mr Dillow, an economist…..), nor did I claim that left-handed people, or minorities of any kind should be belittled. What I actually said was that science has proved the principle of congnitive economy which underlies sterotypical thinking. Cognitive economy means, in laymans terms, that we use no more mental processing power and storage space than necessary, because that power and space is limited (see Miller, 1956) and consious awareness of everything around you at all times would overload your consciousness and be very debilitating (in fact one interpretation of schitzophrenia is that the filter between consccious/unconsious is damaged and consciousness becomes flooded with extranous information).
Anyway, when we bring concepts into consciousness they come from pre-formed knowledge structures called “schemas” (see Loftus, 1976, a woman to boot) these schemas contain default information about objects (e.g “Birds can fly”, “the sky is blue”). Ergo, when we see, for example a bird, that is how we know it can fly – no one has to tell us that, we learned it from observing a category which has the label “birds”. We are not concious of knowing that birds can fly, we are subconciously aware of it as a property of all objects that fit the category “birds”it is there, as “sterotypical” information. This principles applies to all knowledge, about all things, for all people, that is what makes it science as opposed to strongly held opinion.
Getting back to Valntines day, many people’s schemas about women will include default settings such as “will like flowers” , “won’t like football” “will dislike me breaking wind loudly” because the majority of women they have met fit (and have thus re-inforced) that schema. Quite why women like flowers is unknown to any man on the planet – spending money on something that will sit in a vase and then go in the bin inside a week seems pointless – but if women are happy, then we are happy, so we buy them.
And yes I did buy some, fair trade roses, imported from Kenya, and yes she did like them. My schema is intact and unchanged.

Please tell me you’re joking about the roses being imported from Kenya.

36. the a&e charge nurse

Matt M – I much prefer your summary to the verbose Heylighen.

Not all birds can fly though (ostrich, penguin, chickens).
Hell, some birds are not even birds sometimes (for connoisseur of cockney rhyming slang).

Other than that your post makes perfect sense to me.

“Matt”, the one time I bought my wife roses she got incredibly annoyed at me and started ranting about thorns and how they’re a waste of money, while she loves football and I can’t stand the wretched game.

Just because people tend to think in stereotypes doesn’t mean that doing so reflects reality…

38. the a&e charge nurse

Nobody is claiming stereotypes ALWAYS match reality, they merely serve a utility function for the reasons eloquently outlined by MM.

Let’s see if we can illustrate his thesis by conducting a little experiment.

Supposing you had to put your mortgage on the preference of 100 men and 100 women who are all offered the choice of ONE gift (of equal value in monetary terms).
The male and female subjects were offered either:
[A] one years subscription to SKY sports
[B] gift vouchers to a leading cosmetics & fragrance retailer.

Without ever conducting such a study my guess be that MOST men (who are all individuals) would select the sports channel, while the women (who are also individuals) would prefer the cosmetics option.

By the way, Emus can’t fly either.

I reckon that if the choice was given of A as you state or B as you state or C half the value of A/B in cash, more than 50% of both sexes would take the cash. A and/or B might be nominally worth more, but although lots of men like sport, lots more don’t, and quite a few of those who don’t will pretend that they do to be socially acceptable. With the gift vouchers, it would depend entirely on the retailer: for example, if they were for Lush? MatGB would knaw your hand off for them.

I might actually run a poll on this.

There we go; anyone with an open ID log in can vote, and the more people who vote, the more accurate it is, right?

I don’t see what’s wrong with belittling left-handed people, frankly: It’s political correctness gone mad! There’s a reason the word ‘sinister’ has two meanings.

As to stereotypes, yes they can mislead but thinking in stereotypes is adaptive behaviour. You don’t have any ancestors who thought ‘Maybe this sabre-tooth is friendly’

They are also useful in describing general social relationships: for instance, not all capitalists are money grubbing bastards and not all working class people are horny handed sons of toil: however, the stereotype describes the objective relationship quite adequately.

LOL Mat has just seen the poll; he says he would take the vouchers, sell £300 of them for £270 to make more than the cash, and spend the £200 remaining on yummy bath stuff.

There’s a reason I’m marrying that boy…

Dear Mr. Dillow:

Please explain all the fucking fellas who use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to grandstand, self-validate and self-exonerate – WITHOUT any demands from their women.

My ex, for example, bought me a card and stuff, and I was quite surprised. I didn’t even ask for birthday presents, just for him to be a better boyfriend. Seemingly too much to ask.

I know a lot of women who don’t ask for anything but their men just assume they’ll want to do Valentine’s. I also know of many who, like my bf, use it as an excuse to cover up their failings.

My current squeeze did, and I went along with it to keep him happy, but have told him that we are NOT next year, because it is BS.

Now, I’m not famed for understanding women.

Seems like you have trouble with the terms ‘bullshit generalisation’ and ‘scientifically-proven fact’ as well. And by the way, that blog post of yours on women was not in the least funny. I understand irony just fine, being a soon-to-be English Lit graduate and that was just some ‘cover-my-self-pitying misogynist ass’ crap. I was delighted to note that despite being a London woman, who has been known to have feelings, 0 of your ‘observations’ applied to me. In fact, I’m attending a pub quiz tomorrow.

However, I’d say 1, 2 (and I’d bet 5) evidently apply to you. EPIC FAIL.

44. the a&e charge nurse

Great stuff Jennie – I take my hat of to you.

I do enjoy reading the comments of male collectivists who think their views will be more acceptable if they pander to left-wing women by calling themselves feminist. Fraternity, eh?!

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