Normally, I don’t match couples. I’m a professor, and I spend my days doing research on labor economics. But finding the right match between an employer and a worker is, when you get right down to it, pretty much the same concept as finding the right romantic match. That idea was the inspiration for my 2014 book, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned From Online Dating,” which explains classic economic ideas through examples from the world of romance. So when Date Lab asked if I would match a couple and write up their date, I was happy to have a chance to put these ideas into action.
I was given the task of matching Eric Burns, a 28-year-old PhD astrophysicist now working at a federal agency. I chose to set him up with Talia Shirazi, a 26-year-old PhD student studying behavioral endocrinology. I went with another PhD because “positive assortative matching” — that is, pairing people with observably similar characteristics in terms of education, income and so forth — generally works well in creating romantic couples.
Eric was in a relationship that ended right before he moved here a year ago. Since then, he says, “I don’t do online dating but I try to have fun while traveling ... going to bars, doing touristy things, and getting in touch with friends of friends.”
In the weeks before his date with Talia, Eric had to travel for work, and it took an inordinately long time to arrange their meeting. But he made up for this by bringing Talia chocolate from Berlin and Vietnam. He also agreed to go out on his birthday.
When the couple met at Birch & Barley, a new-American eatery near Logan Circle, Talia was very touched by the chocolate, which put them both at ease and helped relieve the stress Talia was feeling after a pre-date makeup malfunction. She had left home that morning in a rush and, shortly before meeting Eric, realized she had forgotten her makeup bag. In a panic, she ducked into a beauty store, where a sales associate did her makeup for free.
At dinner, the conversation flowed easily as the pair talked about some predictable things (their recent trips, academic life, hobbies). Talia emphasized that it was not your usual awkward, first-date discussion of these issues, though: “These sound like boring, generic topics, but they didn’t come up in a boring, generic way. It was more organic rather than just Q&A-ing each other.”
They also dug a bit deeper for a good chunk of the evening, by discussing whether they are good people. Eric distinguished between being nice and being kind, and emphasized that he’s nice to people he likes and cares about and will do a lot for them. But, when it comes to general people, he admits he can come off as a bit cold and aloof. Always one to be uncomfortable when people are “sunshine, rainbows and unicorns,” Talia was on the same wavelength.
For food, they shared everything and spoke highly of the flatbread. The bill ended up being quite sizable thanks to more than one whiskey sour (Eric) and a couple of other cocktails and an unsuccessful beer experiment (Talia).
They’d arrived at 7 p.m. Around 11, Eric recalled, he was surprised to find that four hours had flown by. Surely, I thought, they were on the path to a great relationship if they could spend hours together right off the bat.
No such luck. As they waited for Talia’s Uber (Eric walked home), she asked for his number and he happily obliged. Talia felt that, because she had initiated the phone number exchange, the ball was in Eric’s court. But Eric soon decided there was no future here. He’s going to be moving in a year or two when he gets an academic job, so he has a very high bar for long-term relationships right now. Much as he liked Talia, he didn’t see enough to invest more of their time.
I respected his decision. I didn’t tell him that it was a bit naive to believe that there is an endless supply of women out there with whom you can have an effortless, delightful four-hour conversation on the night you meet them. That was something he would have to figure out for himself. For her part, Talia said she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for in a romantic partner and is also at a transient point in her life, so was also happy to move on. She told me, “I’m open to serious, long-term things but not focused on that.”
Eric: 4 [out of 5].
Shortly after the date, Eric texted Talia to let her know he was not interested in meeting up again. She sent back a lighthearted reply, and there has been no further contact.
Paul Oyer is the Mary and Rankine Van Anda entrepreneurial professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.