The Base Rate in Hitting on People

Last week I met a single friend at a bar. He remarked that had I been late, or not turned up at all, he would have seriously considered chatting up a couple of women at the table next to ours.

This friend has spent considerable time in several cities. The conversation moved to how conducive these cities are for chatting up people, and what occasions are appropriate for chatting up. In Delhi, for example, he mentioned that you never try and chat up a strange woman – you are likely to be greeted with a swap.

In Bombay, he said, it depends on where you chat up. What caught my attention was when he mentioned that in hipster cafes, the ones that offer quinoa bowls and vegan smoothies, it is rather normal to chat up strangers, whether you are doing so with a romantic intent or not. One factor he mentioned was the price of real estate in Bombay which means most of these places have large “communal tables” that encourage conversation.

The other thing we spoke about how the sort of food and drink such places serve create a sort of “brotherhood” (ok not appropriate analogy when talking about chatting up women), and that automatically “qualifies” you as not being a creep, and your chatting up being taken up seriously.

This got me thinking about the concept of “base rates” or “priors”. I spent the prime years of my youth in IIT Madras, which is by most accounts a great college, but where for some inexplicable reason, not too many women apply to get in. That results in a rather lopsided ratio that you would more associate with a dating app in India rather than a co-educational college.

In marketing you have the concept of a “qualified lead”. When you randomly call a customer to pitch your product there is the high chance that she will hang up on you. So you need to “prime” the customer to expect your call and respond positively. Building your brand helps. Also, doing something that gauges the customer’s interest before the call, and calling only once the interest is established, helps.

What you are playing on here in marketing is is the “base rate” or the “prior” that the customer has in her head. By building your brand, you automatically place yourself in a better place in the customer’s mind, so she is more likely to respond positively. If, before the call, the customer expects to have a better experience with you, that increases the likelihood of a positive outcome from the call.

And this applies to chatting up women as well. The lopsided ratio at IIT Madras, where I spent the prime of my youth, meant that you started with a rather low base rate (the analogy with dating apps in India is appropriate). Consequently, chatting up women meant that you had to give an early signal that you were not a creep, or that you were a nice guy (the lopsided ratio also turns most guys there into misogynists, and not particularly nice. This is a rather vicious cycle). Of course, you could build your brand with grades or other things, but it wasn’t easy.

Coming from that prior, it took me a while to adjust to situations with better base rates, and made me hesitant for a long time, and for whatever reason I assumed I was a “low base rate” guy (I’m really glad, in hindsight, that my wife “approached” me (on Orkut) and said the first few words. Of course, once we’d chatted for a while, I moved swiftly to put her in my “basket”).

Essentially, when we lack information, we stereotype someone with the best information we have about them. When the best information we have about them is not much, we start with a rather low prior, and it is upon them to impress us soon enough to upgrade them. And upgrading yourself in someone’s eyes is not an easy business. And so you should rather start from a position where the base rate is high enough.

And this “upgrade” is not necessarily linear – you can also use this to brand yourself in the axes that you want to be upgraded. Hipster cafes provide a good base rate that you like the sort of food served there. Sitting in a hipster cafe with a MacBook might enhance your branding (increasingly, sitting in a cafe with a Windows laptop that is not a Surface might mark you out as an overly corporate type). Political events might help iff you are the overly political type (my wife has clients who specify the desired political leadings of potential spouses). Caste groups on Orkut or Facebook might help if that is the sort of thing you like. The axes are endless.

All that matters is that whatever improved base rate you seek to achieve by doing something, the signal you send out needs to be credible. Else you can get downgraded very quickly once you’ve got the target’s attention.

Methods of Negotiations

There are fundamentally two ways in which you can negotiate a price. You can either bargain or set a fixed price. Bargaining induces temporary transaction costs – you might end up fighting even, as you are trying to negotiate. But in the process you and the counterparty are giving each other complete information of what you are thinking, and at every step in the process, there is some new information that is going into the price. Finally, if you do manage to strike a deal, it will turn out to be one that both of you like (ok I guess that’s a tautology). Even when there is no deal, you know you at least tried.

In a fixed price environment, on the other hand, you need to take into consideration what the other person thinks the price should be. There’s a fair bit of game theory involved and you constantly need to be guessing, about what the other person might be thinking, and probably adjust your price accordingly. There is no information flow during the course of the deal, and that can severely affect the chances of a deal happening. The consequences in terms of mental strain could be enormous in case you are really keen that the deal goes through.

Some people find the fixed price environment romantic. They think it’s romantic that one can think exactly on behalf of the counterparty and offer them a fair deal. What they fail to discount is the amount of thought process and guessing that actually goes in to the process of determining the “fair deal”. What they discount is the disappointment that has occurred in the past when they’ve been offered an unfair deal, and can do nothing about it because the price is fixed. But I guess that’s the deal about romance – you remember all the nice parts and ignore that similar conditions could lead to not-so-nice outcomes.

Bargaining, on the other hand has none of this romance. It involves short-term costs, fights even. But that’s the best way to go about it if you are keen on striking a deal. Unfortunately the romantics think it’s too unromantic (guess it’s because it’s too practical) and think that if you want a high probability of a deal, you should be willing to offer a fixed price. And the fight continues.. Or maybe not – it could even be a “take it or leave it” thing.