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It’s Better to Be Single on Valentine’s Day

5 minute read

Neil McArthur is a philosopher specializing in ethical issues around sex and love. He works at the University of Manitoba. Marina Adshade uses research, human insight and economic analysis to unlock the mysteries behind our actions, thoughts and preferences regarding sexual relationships, gender, love and power. She shows that every option, every decision and every outcome in the realm of sex and love is better understood through economics. Dr. Adshade has a Ph.D. from Queen's University and currently teaches economics at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

“I really love Valentine’s Day!” said no unattached person, ever. And why shouldn’t the holiday be depressing for singles, when everyone else is basking in the glory that is romantic love. While this feeling is understandable, it’s not exactly rational; being in love is no more wonderful, and probably quite a bit less so, on Valentine’s Day than it is on any other day of the year.

From an economic perspective, the value of Valentine’s Day is that it creates an environment in which those in relationships can get information about how committed their partner is. Of course, we look for this information throughout the year, but February 14 is the one day when you have to show your hand. From this perspective, Valentine’s Day is a massive coordinated effort in which men and women have little choice but to spend time and money to assure their partners that they are loved.

And boy do they spend. The National Retail Federation predicts that Americans will spend a total of $19 billion on Valentine’s giving this year. That averages out to $142 per person celebrating the holiday.

But it is not just the expense that makes it better to be single on Valentine’s Day. To understand why you are better off unattached, it is best to think of gift giving on this day as a type of Prisoner’s Dilemma, the outcome of which determines whether or not a person wants to stay in a relationship.

Valentine’s Day, essentially, is a game in which each person who is in a relationship must choose between two strategies; buy a gift for their significant other or do nothing to celebrate the day. Given that there are two players, each with two strategic options, there are three possible outcomes that can happen on the big day.

The first outcome is that both choose to buy gifts. In this case, both will be satisfied that their partner is committed to the relationship, but that satisfaction comes at a cost. Unlike Christmas, when you occasionally get things you actually want, the vast majority of spending on Valentine’s Day is on items that people do not choose for themselves; 53% receive candy, 38% receive flowers, 21% receive jewelry, and 51% receive greeting cards. The reason we rarely buy these things for ourselves is because they cost more than we personally value them. So when our partners buy them for us, they are not getting the biggest bang for their buck in terms of our happiness.

And on Valentine’s Day, these things often cost more than they do on other days of the year.

The second outcome is that one person in the relationship buys a gift and the other does not. This will likely leave the gift giver with the impression that his or her partner is not committed to the relationship. From now until the middle of March is the one of the biggest times of the year for break ups, according to data from Facebook, and 53% of women say they would dump a guy who ignored Valentine’s Day, two facts that suggest that people who choose this strategy do not end up with much relationship happiness.

The final outcome is that neither person in the relationship gives a gift. This is the outcome that has the biggest return for the couple, especially for those who are already confidently committed. But it is also the outcome that is least likely to occur; the risk is just too high that one person will decide, maybe even at the last minute, to buy a gift for either partner to take the chance that they are going to find themselves in the second outcome — and potentially in the dog house.

Photographing a Kiss: Long Time Love Affairs

The Lovers
Joseph and Dorothy Bolotin Sharon, Pennsylvania Married on June 16, 1938. Dorothy, "I never think of it in terms of years. I think of it in terms of good years. In love, hot romance doesn’t last forever. So I would say that yes, I think love changes. I would say we’re still in love. It’s focusing, doing little things. He’s an amazing man."Lauren Fleishman
John and Sherma CampbellStar Valley, WyomingMarried on May 13, 1955Sherma When you start out, you think you love each other as much as you possibly can,but lovegrows—just like your inner self grows as time goes by and you have experiences.And now at thisstage of the game, I love him even more. I can’t even imagine life without him.
John and Sherma Campbell Star Valley, Wyoming Married on May 13, 1955. Sherma, "When you start out, you think you love each other as much as you possibly can,but love grows—just like your inner self grows as time goes by and you have experiences.And now at this stage of the game, I love him even more. I can’t even imagine life without him."Lauren Fleishman
Jin Lin and Lai Mei ChenBrooklyn, New York Married on February 4, 1961Jin Lin We had so many things in common it was like our hearts were the same.
Jin Lin and Lai Mei Chen Brooklyn, New York Married on February 4, 1961. Jin Lin, "We had so many things in common it was like our hearts were the same."Lauren Fleishman
The Lovers
de'Spagnolis Aldo de’Spagnolis and Maria Filiozzi Itri, Italy Married on October 23, 1949. Aldo, "When I first saw her, she was 14 and I was 22.Was there a concern that she was too young for me? No! Even now I look like a young child! Yes, even now I’m still young."Lauren Fleishman
The Lovers
Jake and Mary Jacobs Solihull, England Married on April 27, 1948. Mary,"Jake said to me,'Would it ever be possible for me to marry you?' And I said,'Possible but not probable!' And that’s how it was. It wasn’t likely that I would ever marry him, and he knew that. So when he went home to Trinidad, my mother and father breathed a sigh of relief. But he used to write, and he said, 'I’m thinking I might come back to England.'"Lauren Fleishman
The Lovers
Kissin Yevgeniy and Lyubov Kissin Brooklyn, New York Married on June 29, 1941. Yevgeniy, "We met at a dancing party. It was in January 1938. My friend invited me to the party, he said there would be a lot of beautiful young girls. Another cadet with high boots had approached her, but she didn’t like high boots and so she said no to him. I was the second one to approach her. I had a different uniform, but I’m still not sure if it was my uniform or my face that attracted her to me."Lauren Fleishman
The Lovers
Itig and Golda Pollac Brooklyn, New York Married on August 13, 1946. Golda, "I would say love came little by little. Not right away.We were young.And he was older, but I liked him. He spoke to me in a very nice way."Lauren Fleishman
The Lovers
Yaakov and Mariya Shapirshetyn Brooklyn, New York Married on July 6, 1949. Yaakov, "What is the secret to love? A secret is a secret, and I don’t reveal my secrets."Lauren Fleishman
The Lovers
Gino and Angie Terranova Staten Island. New York Married on September 27, 1947. Angie, "You really don’t think about getting older. First of all, you’re aging together, and when you see a person constantly,you don’t notice big changes. Like you don’t notice, oh you’re getting a little wrinkle here and tomorrow you say it’s a little deeper. No, those are things that just happen."Lauren Fleishman

The best strategy would be for couples to ignore the holiday altogether, but they won’t because there is just too much pressure to conform to the holiday traditions from both inside and outside the relationship. From a game strategic perspective, participating in the holiday just leads to sub-optimal outcomes.

So, if you are single on Valentine’s Day, you are only missing out on the opportunity to participate in an exercise that makes everyone involved worse off than they would have been had the holiday not existed at all.

Clearly, you are better off being single on Valentine’s Day. And you are certainly no worse off by being single this Saturday than you are any other day of the year.

So, if you really want to enjoy the day, go buy yourself something that you actually want. And, in the future, you might think about dating someone with whom you arrange an efficient allocation of resources on Valentine’s Day; we recommend dating an economist.

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