The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

10 January 2006

Holding out for a heroine?

In a statistical sample, the mode is the value which occurs most often. It might be near the median, but it doesn't necessarily have to be: not all curves make nice bells.

Which is by way of introducing Tyler Cowen's concept of the Modal Spouse:

I define a modal wife (or husband) as a person you would have married (could have married?) had you met them at the right time, unattached, and under normal life conditions. The number of modal wives is typically greater than or equal to the number of real wives, although clever philosophers will recognize possible [sic] counterexamples.

Under one view, you have hundreds or thousands of modal wives, most of whom you never meet. (How many does the average person meet, how soon do you know when you meet one, and how confused would you be if they were all in the same room at once?) Your correct dating strategy is to cast your net very widely, and hope to find and marry one of these people.

This is, of course, not the only view available:

Under another view, modal wives are no big deal. Your so-called "modal wives" are no better for you than, say, the best woman you could pick out of a lot of thirty eligibles. The key inputs for a good marriage are attitude and a minimum degree of compatibility, not search and discovery.

If this is true, searching for modal wives, or perhaps even thinking about the concept, can make you worse off. The quest for the perfect mate makes it harder to come to terms with what is otherwise a compatible marriage. Which perhaps is all you are going to get anyway. Marriage is good for you, and don't be too fussy, this is not iTunes. Too much choice, or too much perceived choice, is problematic.

Wait a minute. There are thirty eligibles?

This is, in essence, a restating of the old principle that "the perfect is the enemy of the good," which goes back at least as far as Voltaire. And settling for what you can get (call it Option Two) is presumably more likely to produce positive results than waiting for what you think you really want (Option One).

Except, of course, that I've already exercised Option Two, and made a botch of it. (Well, I had help; normally it takes two pairs of shoes to kick a marriage to the curb.) Bottom line: either a choice which has proven itself to be suboptimal, or a choice which likely will produce no results whatsoever. It might be easier just to throw I Ching.

Out the window, if need be.

(Via Jacqueline Passey.)

Posted at 6:22 AM to Table for One


I call it the comparison of 'taking the path of least resistance' to 'taking the path of characteristic impedance.'

Posted by: Fûz at 11:14 PM on 10 January 2006