In recent centuries, humanity has got better at all sorts of things it has put its minds to. Farming, maths, war, extreme ironing, getting computers to play chess etc. But there is one endeavour that we don’t seem to be get much better at, despite a top notch obsession: romance. You might become more adept at flirtation or domestic happiness over the years, but it’s not clear that society as a whole is improving.
What do I mean by ‘better at romance’? Well, there are costs and benefits to romance. Having to buy sexy clothes, going on unpleasant dates, paying for pleasant dates, obsessing over another person’s every utterance for months, crying over break ups, blushing over refusals, and compromising over the layout of the living room are all costs. You can probably think of some benefits. I will say we are better at romance when we are more efficient at it, that is we get more benefits for the costs we incur. A romantically efficient person gets more affection and orgasms for the same input of searching and pining, just as an efficient farmer gets more grain and pigs for the same amount of land and dirt. The big question: are we getting more romantically efficient?
It’s fairly hard to judge the rate of improvement here. Romantic satisfaction is complicated to measure and measuring it too quantitatively is supposedly destructive to it. People tend to be private and deceitful about it. But suppose we were getting efficient at romance as fast as we are getting efficient at, say, animating movies. We would notice, even without detailed records, because the relationship we have now would have been completely unbelievable ten years ago (OK, for some near the start of our adult lives this is still true). Even if romance was improving as fast as say farming, everyone would be able to see a huge improvement since their grandparents’ time, when one had to get up at 5AM to start the foreplay.
Still, perhaps romance is improving more slowly than we can tell with such primitive observation methods. There are some reasons to think it is, and some to think it might be getting worse or at least moving very slowly. Let’s break romance down into a few different parts. First you have to find someone to do it with. Then you have to convince them that they have also found someone. Then you have to actually do whatever it is you wanted to do with them, and both enjoy it, or get whatever else it was you wanted out of it.
The initial searching part may have been aided in recent years by internet matching services. This includes both dedicated dating sites and obscure corners of the blogosphere where specific breeds of weirdo can meet their matches, combined with search engines. I suspect this has been very good for unusual people. In the old days you could go a lifetime without even realising other deaf nudist architects existed. Now you can google for them in seconds. That’s something your ancestors would be impressed by, or would be if your ancestors were the kinds of people who couldn’t find a partner, which they were not.
Along with better ways to find people, the internet means there are just a lot more people available to look through. This is also a result of cheaper transport and bigger cities. If you are rational, having more people to pick from should help. But a smorgasbord can tempt one to taste everything, even when you find something good quickly (which you probably will if you are a normal person looking for another normal person). If people raise their standards in the face of so many options, or feel the need to look a lot further, or become indecisive and noncommittal, the extra options may not be helping them at the moment.
Convincing one’s chosen person to reciprocate is something that people put a lot of thought into. They learn ‘game’ and get makeovers and become interested in football. Arguably the rest of human behaviour also falls into this category. So individuals become more impressive in many ways. Unfortunately this is a zero sum game as far as attracting the person goes, assuming monogamy. There is some benefit to men for instance from all women looking more attractive as a result of their competition. But it’s doubtful whether this benefit is worth all the effort the women put into the fight. The same goes for other characteristics, though some may have large enough offsetting positives to other people to make the competitions worthwhile, though still not very romantically efficient. For instance some ways that people have found to show off their intelligence are quite useful.
Because this is all about signaling, innovations that make it easier for say a stupid person to seem smarter mean that the smarter people have to work harder to look even smarter again. So the overall outcome of one person becoming better at seducing their beloved in the short term can be a loss of efficiency for everyone in the long term. A few hundred years ago perhaps you could demonstrate that you were well connected by occasionally having good gossip about a local elite. Now people specialise in collecting this gossip and spreading it to everyone with a few moments to read it. This both defeats that particular purpose of having the gossip for everybody, and means that you have go to more effort to show that you really do have such connections, such as being seen in public with elite person.
OK, once we finish choosing and convincing and get to the part about enjoying one another, the competition is over. Surely any advancements in promoting marital felicity and having wild sex could be shared and improved upon by all? Well I for one have no idea what the cutting edge discoveries are, which points to a problem here. People just don’t honestly share such information that much, which, as we learned in the hunter gatherer era, does not rapid innovation make. There are of course self help books on these topics, and pharmaceutical innovations, and academic research into what effect squirting chemicals in your face has on your love life for instance. I expect these help a bit, but missing out on the learning through doing of billions of people is quite a loss.
It may have also have become harder to enjoy what you’ve got due to the increased ease of switching to something else. The larger choice of partners I mentioned earlier also means there are more people to suspect might be better than your current partner. Some claim pornography has a similar effect. Despite this, pornography is probably a major force for romantic efficiency. At least if you extend ‘romance’ to relationships with online videos, it may be the one area romantic efficiency really has jumped ahead lately. Thank you internet.
Romance matters to us all. Efficiency is even more important. Romantic efficiency should be a key issue, but on many fronts our progress is hampered, and improvements seem sparse. There is no pacifist movement for stemming the waste from romantic conflict nor any transparency movement for stopping the secrecy that slows romantic innovation. I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I hope that in the coming century we can all follow where the oddballs and pornography enthusiasts have led and enjoy soaring advancement of romantic efficiency.
Katja Grace is a philosophy student who blogs at http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com.