Why personal advice columnists should consider population processes

by Alan Cohen

Emily Yoffe as Prudie on Slate.com

I admit it. I’m an addict. An addict to the prurient, the salacious, the voyeuristic…advice columns. When Dear Prudie on Slate posts a new column of advice for the gay man who’s in love with his twin brother, or (yet another) bride-to-be fighting with her mother-in-law-to-be, or a couple whose sexual tastes are a mismatch, I’m all over it. I just can’t get enough.

And yet I’m also deeply disappointed in Prudie for her failure to understand population processes! After all, what reasonable advice columnist doesn’t understand population processes? OK, maybe I’m expecting too much. But Prudie is giving bad advice on a regular basis because she treats each case as if it were isolated from the rest of the world and not subject to population processes.

By now you’re probably wondering what a population process is. No worries, you’re not alone – you have at least Prudie for company. And I’m going to convince you that if you want to give good personal advice (or make good personal decisions yourself) you’ll be better off if you understand what they are.

Let’s start with a simple example: a woman upset because her boyfriend won’t stop licking her face. Like everyone, she says he’s absolutely wonderful except for this one thing… Prudie’s advice? Cut your losses! Get rid of the creep!

I agree this is a bit weird, and there is not necessarily any reason for the woman to stay with her boyfriend. But it’s also a minor thing to leave someone over. And it’ s not this one case;  it’s a pattern. Prudie is often advising women to leave their men, particularly at the first sign that someone is a creep in one way or another.

As advice for individual cases, this sounds good. After all, who would want to be with a creep? But the problem is that, at a societal level, some percentage of men are creeps. Like it or not, there they are. This percentage is not infinitessimally small (like, say, serial killers) – a fairly large chunk of the male population is creepy in one way or another, at least some of the time. If every woman took Prudie’s advice and avoided these men, then a large chunk of the female population would end up without a partner. (This is not necessarily true in China, where there are far too many men due to the one-child policy and sex-selective abortions.)

Not all women want a partner. Not all men want a partner. For many, the decision will depend on who the partner is – if the partner is good enough, it’s better than being single, but otherwise it’s better to be alone. We each have our threshold. But our thresholds are also malleable, based on social norms and on advice like Prudie’s. Prudie encourages us to raise our threshold, but not necessarily to consider whether that increases our chances of ending up single (which it inevitably does).

In addition to our individual thresholds for minimum standards for a partner, we also have the population process of assortative mating. This is the fancy term biologists and sociologists use to say that people (and animals) find mates that are similar to them, and of similar social status. It’s because of assortative mating that we’re surprised if we see a hot girl with a loser guy (to take a stereotype), or if we see a rich and famous guy with a homely woman. Society gives us an implicit hierarchy of status for both men and women, and we are largely expected to find someone at our level. It’s hard to find someone much higher, and few people want someone much lower. Obviously, our individual criteria can vary considerably, and this cannot be measured precisely, but if you think it’s unimportant, ask yourselves how many rich and powerful men end up with women who are simultaneously ugly, poor, depressive, poorly educated, and mean. Not many.

What assortative mating means is that it’s hard to move too far up or down the social scale in our choice of partner. But the characteristics that Prudie finds creepy are often the sorts of things that mean a man has a lower place on this scale than he would otherwise. His value as a partner drops if he is a cheater, a lecher, an alcoholic, etc. It’s possible that these women have married down, and if they leave they can do much better. It’s possible in some cases they’re a bad match and that each might find a better partner. But often the man’s offense is such that Prudie would recommend that every woman reject him. If we think in terms of population processes, this means one man who wants a partner should be pulled from the pool of eligible men. And that means there will be more competition among women for those who are left. (I want to be clear here that I am not advocating this hierarchical part of human nature, but it exists in every society whether we like it or not.)

More often than not, women who are with a man with some creepy trait are women who are themselves not that high up the social scale. This may be the best they can do. (Or they may have to sacrifice something else important to them.) Their real choice may not be between staying with a creep and leaving to find someone better; it may be between staying and ending up single, or between staying and finding someone else no better. It still may be better to leave, but if so this choice needs to be made considering that the alternative may not be a better partner.

When I was bartending in Japan, one of my customers was a 22-year old woman who told me her boyfriend beat her. I (being 19 and naive) advised her to leave him. Her response? Her father had beaten her mother, and she knew where she stood socially. She knew that she couldn’t hope to do better, and it was better to be with him than single. I’m not at all sure she was right, but she seemed cooly rational about it. Other people I’ve known in abusive relationships have been emotionally entangled in complex ways, but this woman seemed simply resigned to her fate. Perhaps my perception was wrong, perhaps she should have left, but the question we never ask ourselves is, if every woman with an abusive partner left, how many women would be left with no partner at all? And how many of them would be happier with no partner than a bad one? Many, for sure, but not all.

So what are population processes? Population processes are all the fish in the sea, and the way they set up hierarchies and choose each other. The individual choices we make – the thresholds we set – affect the pool of fish, and if many of us change our individual choices, we will also change the pool. When someone gives advice in a column (as opposed to to a friend), we expect that the principle should apply generally, and the column is therefore establishing a social norm that will affect the pool of fish. So the question is not just what appears to be good if we ignore the pool, but what is good when we consider the full context of the pool.

I’ll leave you with my favorite fortune-cookie fortune ever:

“There are always more fish in the sea. Not necessarily as beautiful or as rich, but fish nonetheless.”

Let me know your thoughts on fishing, advice columns, and populations!