The other day, the wife and I were discussing about growing up, and about school crushes, and how relationships worked in school. It was a fascinating discussion, and it has already led to an excellent newsletter episode by her. Here is the key point of our discussion, as she wrote in her newsletter:
There are rumours that some boys have a crush on a couple of girls. You think that it’s a pandemic like the COVID-19, and it’s going to get us all, except it doesn’t. This unfortunately follows a power law, only a couple of boys and girls will be affected by the “crush”, the rest of us just have to be affected by the lack of – crushes, bosoms and baritones. Now, the problem with middle/ high school is that it operates on mob mentality – everyone is only allowed to have a crush on the crushable.
And then later on in the piece, she talks about proms.
You are most likely to fall in love organically and benefit from it early on in life. So, wasting these precious years of socialising is a sin.
So, when I think about it, “prom” is a great concept. It gives everyone a shot at gaining some experience. You’re better off going to prom at 16 rather than at 26.
This got me thinking about proms. I had no clue of the concept of a “prom” while growing up, and only came to know of it through some chick flicks I watched when I was in my late teens. However, I ended up writing about proms in my book (while describing Hall’s Marriage Theorem – yes, you can find Graph Theory concepts in a book on market design), and the more I think about it, the more I think it is a great concept.
The thing with proms is that it forces a matching. One on one. One boy gets one girl and vice versa (I really don’t know how schools that don’t have a balanced sex ratio handle it). And that is very different from how the crush network operates in middle and high school.
As Pinky described in her post, crushes in middle and high school follow a power law, because there is strong mob mentality that operates in early puberty. Before “benefits” get discovered, one of the main reasons for having a boyfriend/girlfriend is the social validation that comes along with it, and such validation is positive if and only if your peer group “approves” of your partner.
So this leads to a “rich get richer” kind of situation. Everyone wants to hit on the hottest boys and girls, with the result that a small minority are overwhelmed with attention, while the large majority remains partnerless. And they continue to be partnerless this way, friendzoning large sets of their classmates at an age that is possibly most suited for finding a long-term gene-propagating partner.
In most Indian schools, the crush graph in high school looks like this. The boys and girls towards the bottom are the “long tail” – they are not cool to hit on, so nobody hits on them. In other words, they are unloved in High School. Notice that it’s a fairly long tail.
Also notice that most of the arrows point upwards (I’ve drawn the graph so the most sought-after people are on top). Because nothing prevents “one way crushes”, everyone just tries “as high as they can” to find a partner. And most of these don’t work out. And most people remain unloved.
So what does a prom do? Firstly, everyone wants to go to the prom, and to go to a prom, you need a date. Which means that everyone here in this long tail needs a partner as well. In the original setup, when crushes were based on mob-mentality, there was no concept of seeking “undervalued assets” (people nobody else is hitting on). Now, when everyone needs a unique partner, there is value to be found in undervalued assets.
Basically a prom, by providing immediate rewards for finding a partner (soon enough, the kids will discover other “benefits” as well), moves the schoolkids from a “crush network” to a “partner network”, which better represents real-world romantic networks.
Many people may not be able to pair with their first choice (notice in the above network that even the most sought after people may not necessarily match with their favourites), but everyone will get a partner. The Gale Shapley (or should I say Shapely Gal?) algorithm will ensure a stable matching.
Moreover, it doesn’t help your cause in getting a preferred (if not most preferred) partner for the prom if you make your attempt just before the prom. You need to have put in efforts before. This means that in anticipation of the prom, “pair bonding” can happen much earlier. Which means that schoolkids are able to get trained in finding a partner for themselves much earlier than they do now.
That will make it less likely that they’ll bug their parents a decade (or two) later to find them a partner.