Flirty Dancing: A masterclass in the economics of love


Written By: Emily Gillingham

What 3 things can Behavioural Economics teach us about the art of falling (and staying) in love?


Two men are running up the stairs of an empty Tate Britain; music is blaring and they are about to lock eyes for the first time.

This is Flirty Dancing. E4’s latest offering in the dating show genre.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the premise is simple: two hopeful singles meet for the first time to perform a dance routine together. The majority of the show leads up to this moment, showing each of our hopefuls learning the routine in isolation from one another with the show’s host and choreographer, Ashley Banjo.

It’s a conscious step away from current dating shows; stripping back (with a nostalgic lens) the complexities of modern dating in favour of a simple formula of two people, one place, one mission.

After watching the first episode, I can’t help but think that this show is onto something (and not just because of Ashley Banjo’s smiley face as the self-appointed ‘love guru’). Underlying the seemingly basic premise are some impactful behavioural theories at play.


1. Presenting one partner rather than many: breaking free of decision paralysis

Hinge, Tinder, OK Cupid, Bumble…They all came onto the scene with a bang. Suddenly you could date the person you saw on the plane or try your luck with the locals in a new destination.

We had access to possible dates like never before. And more choice means more success right? But it turns out, when faced with too many options, we’re terrible at evaluating them all. Studies have shown time and time again that rather than help us choose the best option, we end up deciding not to commit to any at all. *

Why are we so rubbish at this? The answer lies in the way our brain is structured. The same part of the brain is dedicated to memory and self-control. This means that once we meet our memory limit (roughly 7 pieces of information at any one time), we limit our capacity to exercise our self control. Just like a weighing scale, the less information at once we have to retain, the better able we are to evaluate and make decisions.

Thinking back to Flirty Dancing’s punchy format, with just one person to concentrate on and remember, the participants are in a much better place to make an informed decision and commit.


2. Taking a punt at the lottery of love: using loss aversion to spark the second ‘meet’

While Flirty Dancing may offer us a stripped down version of our classic dating shows, it must still use tension to keep their viewers hooked. In a dramatic twist at the end, both singles must choose if they would like to meet again.

Given the number of ‘how to’ articles dedicated to getting that second date online, the odds of getting a second after a first date is pretty low. Yet in every single episode of the show, the two meet for a second date.

Yes, it is a TV show and it might not mimic the real world, but this is a crazily high conversion rate! What’s going on here?

Again, its down to those pesky cognitive biases.

This time it is the phenomenon known as loss aversion. This is the idea that there is an imbalance between our perception of losses and gains, with our perception of loss sitting in the driving seat. Research has shown us that the regret we feel at losing something is twice as pronounced as the joy we feel at gaining something.

So how is Flirty Dancing playing it so well? They ham up the ‘loss’ the participant will have by not going on that second date.

By building up the second ‘meet’ as a once-in-a-lifetime chance, they are creating a sense in the participant that by not going on the date, they could be losing out on a huge opportunity. Again, this is interesting, for they aren’t necessarily motivated by the gain of the date itself, rather the fear that by not going on it, they could lose out on the love of their life.

3. Building the relationship beyond the show: using sunk cost fallacy to motivate commitment

It is said that the further into a relationship you get, the bigger the losses are at stake. Get into a relationship for a short period of time, and when you break up all you lose is the person you were dating. Date for longer, and you start to lose not just the person, but a combined life together.

When you look at behavioural economics, you can see the underlying reason why that break up after 10 years is so much harder than after 1.

Thinking again to loss aversion, rather than make rational decisions based on the future value of objects (what will I gain from leaving this relationship?), our decisions are tainted by the emotional investments we make (what will I lose from leaving this relationship?). The trouble is, the more you have invested in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it.

This isn’t just a phenomenon that exists in the ring of love. Take the classic marketing trick of ‘try it for 30 days and send it back if you don’t like it’. How many people actually send it back? Very few. And that’s why marketers implement it so much. Once that emotional investment has formed, the loss of sending the purchase back suddenly seems much greater.

What’s so clever about Flirty Dancing is how it plays with our propensity for the sunk cost fallacy. By giving the couple a dance routine tailored to them, the show is giving the would-be couple something to take ownership of. As soon as they are learning that routine, they’ve taken the bite; they’ve invested in it. After that they are at the mercy of their cognitive biases.

What does this mean for our understanding love?

If Flirty Dancing has taught us anything it is that our cognitive biases do some wacky things to us. Whether it is loss aversion locking us into commitment, or choice paralysis hindering us from just saying ‘yes’, there is a strong case to be made for going ‘back to the dating basics’ as the show does.

Because in a world with so much choice and limited ownership, maybe all we need is some direction?

*Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York: HarperCollins, 2008


Blog post originally posted on LinkedIn.


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