After agonizing for months about whether to take the risk, a shy high school nerd asks out the pretty girl from his English class who, by the luck of random seat assignments, sits next to him. She reacts with visible disgust, considering the nerd’s excessively polite request sexual harassment.
Because we have hidden traits, potential mates face significant uncertainty concerning our dating market value. We constantly try to get others to raise their opinion of this value, and fight against actions that lower it. The pretty girl in my hypothetical was right to get angry at the nerd, because his request signaled that the girl had a low dating market value.
When someone asks you out on a date, they are basically saying that they think your standards are low enough to voluntarily go out with them. If the asker clearly has high dating market value himself, his advances don’t indicate that he thinks you have a low dating market value. But if you get asked out on a date by someone with a low social status, and other people find out, then others might reasonably downgrade their estimate of your dating market value, especially if the person doing the asking is a shy, cautious nerd.
If an obnoxious high school boy hits on every attractive girl, then he harms none of these girls’ reputations because his asking you out is just a signal that he finds you pretty. But everyone knows that shy nerds fear rejection, so the nerd would only ask out a girl if he thinks there is a significant chance that the girl would say yes, so being asked out by a nerd signals not only that he finds you attractive but that he’s calculated that you will accept him.
Perversely, the shyer the nerd, the more the girl should be bothered by being asked out by him, because extreme shyness means the nerd would only take the chance of asking the girl out if he is very confident she would say yes. Thinking someone is, say, ninety percent likely to accept your advances signals you think they are more desperate then if you believe they are only fifty percent likely to accept. The fact that the nerd is smart and deliberative also raises the harm to the girl because it means that the nerd has given a lot of consideration to whether the girl will accept.
The greatest harm to the girl’s reputation comes from people thinking that the nerd is aware of his place in this social hierarchy. If a mentally impaired boy thinks he is popular and believes his mom when she says that lots of girls have secret crushes on him then his hitting on a girl doesn’t signal he thinks she is of low social standing. But nerds are smart and socially aware enough to realize their own unpopularity and so when a nerd asks a girl on a date he is clearly signaling to everyone that he thinks the girl shares his low status.
What’s a girl to do if asked on a date by a smart, thoughtful, shy, low social status boy? Ideally, she would prevent others from learning about what happened, but if this proves impossible she needs to act as if what the nerd did was utterly unacceptable and so not an indication of her place in the social order. And as human brains excel at truly believing things that serve our self-interest, pretty girls politely asked out by nerds probably genuinely feel sexually harassed.
James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College and the author of Singularity Rising. He has a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. He is currently researching how the Fermi Paradox should influence our long-term survival strategies.