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Categorized | Personal, Philosophy, Science

“Who’s Got Game?” Steven Pinker vs The Pickup Artist

In 2010, I wrote an article called, “In Defense of Sedouchers.” The initial assumption made in my last article was, “if you’re being yourself and it hasn’t been working, you should either change yourself or, at least, tone down qualities that scare people off.” “Insanity,” after all, as Einstein said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

However, after I encountered Steven Pinker’s notion that romantic credibility is a necessary component in long-term commitments. I had to re-evaluate my position.

Transformation, or at least education is the rational course of action when one finds difficulty establishing romantic relations. Seeking out information that would allow an individual to develop and convey personal qualities that are universally accepted as attractive, or implement a method that would result in attraction, is a rational response.

A study done in Oxford called “The Dating Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Emerging Science of Human Courtship,” examined two texts written by the most prominent representatives of the practice of “game” and argued that many of these claims are in fact grounded in solid empirical findings from social, physiological and evolutionary psychology.

Does it really have to be THIS complicated?


However, the idea of subscribing to a rational method, a scientific one even, in order to improve one’s chances of finding a suitable mate is frowned upon as being “manipulative,” the premise being that romance and love, in order to be authentic, has to come from an irrational place.

Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker, in a conference in 1998 called Der Digitale Planet, implies that, “There’s actually a rational component to romantic attraction, basically, smart shopping. As anyone who’s been in the single scene recently will attest: Love is a kind of market place, where all of us, at some point in our lives has been in search of the richest, best-looking, nicest, smartest person who will settle for us.”

Now, if romantic attraction is actually a rational decision, wouldn’t a rational method of creating romantic attraction be a rational course of action? This is where Steven Pinker and the Pickup Artists would disagree. Pinker’s idea of romance applies the Theory of Paradoxical Tactics, a principle that suggests, “A sacrifice of freedom and rationality can paradoxically give and agent an advantage in promises, threats and bargains.”

He believes that, “it is almost always irrational to make a lasting commitment to another person (because based on the law of averages, you’ll eventually meet someone better), the sensation of love must be dramatically irrational in order for people to pair up at all.” And, in fact, it is the display of irrational behavior and decision-making that would legitimize the promises made when people commit.

Why Commitment is Problematic

Pinker suggests that romance is a kind of promise to spend eternity with someone, and sacrifice the opportunity to be “with someone else.” What will stop a rational person from breaking the romantic promise when he or she finds a better “option?” Therein lies the problem.

Pinker says:

“In the case of romance, since you have to set-up house with the best person you found up to a given time, by the law of averages, someone better is bound to show up in the future. The only question is, “when?”… At that point, a perfectly rational person would ‘drop you like a hot potato.’ On the other hand, since you are also a rational agent in this hypothetical scenario, you can anticipate that and you would never have agreed to the promise to begin with anticipating that it would be in the interest of the other party to break it sooner or later.”

However, if every person would approach a relationship from such a perspective, there wouldn’t be any commitment at all. So, what compels completely rational individuals to actually commit to each other? Here’s Pinker’s paradox:

“The solution is that if you don’t decide to fall in love for rational reasons, perhaps you’re less likely to decide to fall out of love for rational reasons. And the very involuntariness of romantic love serves as an implicit guarantor of the promise. It’s one of many examples in which a lack of freedom or rationality is paradoxically an advantage in situations of negotiation between two intelligent parties.”

The Problem of Romantic Authenticity

This is where PUA material, from my POV, should inspire suspicion. There is never, in the PUA, any desire to lose one’s freedom or rationality for the sake of making an implicit guarantee. In fact, one of the most counter-intuitive pieces of advice it regularly gives: “Do not pursue the girl you are in love with.”

It’s a concept called “Oneitis.”

Oneitis is considered “a ‘disease’ (hence the ‘itis) where a man is stuck on one girl and feels that she is ‘the one,’ usually to the detriment of having any romantic relationship with her.” Here’s a link for more information on oneitis. Also, If you have oneitis, here’s how to cure it.

A person with oneitis is not thinking rationally and currently has a distorted concept of who the object of attraction is. The assumption is that if a person yields to his current perception, the oneitis will fall short of his ideal.

However, if the intention was to reach a certain level of irrationality that would compel people to “pair up,” isn’t the oneitis exactly the person one should go after?

But the PUA has a more rational approach than what Pinker suggests:

The rational agent recognizes that the implicit romantic promise is an irrational impulse that causes irrational behavior. So, it is in the best interest of a rational agent to provoke the irrational impulse in his partner while maintaining rationality in himself, or to provoke “romance” without yielding to it himself. That sounds highly manipulative, but isn’t the point of reason, control?

If the rational agent was given this option, this power, to provoke irrational devotion, would it not be the best choice? Irrational people, after all, have little concern for guarantees. Irrational people are also willing to accept lopsided arrangements. The person who can maintain his rationality (the person who isn’t in love) can decide the parameters of the interaction.

And that is exactly why PUA material advocates for avoiding the oneitis.

That’s also why I think there are some things wrong with PUA culture. Many of these methods emphasize control, and do not approach the romantic interaction in good faith.

The Problem of the Modern Romantic Medium

Another concern Pinker raised was, “why the emotions tie up the body as well as the brain.”

He says:

“When we’re in the throes of passion, romantic or otherwise, we show it. We blush, we blanch, we tremble, we sweat, our voice croaks, we get expressions on our face and this has long been a puzzle in physiology. I think one explanation is that we are giving a credible signal that our current course of action is not under the control of the voluntary circuits of the cerebral cortex…”

In other words, when we are passionate, our body communicates our passion to add credibility to the romantic gesture.

However, the current mediums of communication, those in popular use today, social media & texting, are mediums where physical signs of romantic credibility are absent. To make matters worse, “the unique idiosyncratic properties of the individual,” in the age of blogging, is highly inauthentic and mostly synthetic.

Heather Sundell, in her article, “You’re Someone’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, And You Have No Idea” shares her experience on being a creep magnet:

“I tweet, post status updates, and maintain a blog on a daily basis. It makes perfect sense that strangers could genuinely feel like they know me personally, but it’s still weird that these boys projected their manic pixie dream girl fantasies on me based on my social media persona.”

The problem of the current romantic medium is that romantic credibility and authenticity is not possible online or in text because the romantic medium of communication is both physical and irrational. However, the cultural habit of constructing an online identity actually accelerates the romantic process.

Heather Sundell writes:

“Broken down, it’s totally easy to see why guys would look at my silly photos, read my twenty-something blog posts, see my witty 140 character quips, and project that I am their quirky dream girl fantasy. They see this fun girl full of endearing imperfections, who isn’t particularly serious about life, because that’s who I’ve told them I am. I couldn’t have constructed a better character in an indie romantic screenwriting class.”

So, it’s not uncommon to have a person fall in love with an inauthentic identity, pursue her through a flawed medium, and sound completely inauthentic and creepy. The availability of alternative forms of communication (text, chat) might also contribute to people’s apprehension for face to face meetings, making romantic credibility almost an irrelevant aspect of seduction.

On the Necessity of a Rational Foundation & the Psychology of Courtship (Or why one should, in PUA terms, “Play it cool”)

The premise of the paradoxical advantage is that one could increase one’s influence over a person by displaying an irrational surrender to the romantic impulse. Pinker’s own words:

“If you were to whisper in your lover’s ear, ‘You’re the nicest, smartest, best-looking, richest person, I’ve been able to find so far.’ It would probably kill the romantic mood. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the exact opposite. To say that the emotions elicited by the unique idiosyncratic properties of the individual, ‘I can’t help falling in love with you’ and to emphasize how involuntary and irrational it is. ‘I want you so bad and it’s driving me mad, etcetera, etcetera.’”

However, I think this conclusion is flawed. If one were to approach an interaction with irrationality, one will be, as I was by a recent acquaintance, viewed as completely insane and scary (I’m so sorry I freaked you out!).

Pinker’s theory appealed to me because after not being in “the game” for a long, long time, the entire prospect of having to remember “the rules” and follow them seemed like a very tedious process. In other words, I wondered what would happen if I actually expressed what I felt for a girl without any concern for “the game,” or for reason.

In a sense, I also wanted to prove that the romantic pursuit is not dead, & that it’s okay to go “love at first sight” in 2013. I wanted to see if the theory of paradoxical tactics, which I like to refer to as “the anti-PUA,” worked in the real world. I decided to try and ignore the social and cultural conventions of the romantic pursuit.

The premise was simple. If I felt strongly for a particular person, I’d go for it. No fear. No method. No game. Just go.

However, I discovered the hard way that my irrational expression of interest inspired nothing but loathing and repulsion from the desired person. My irrational behavior also alienated some of my friends, primarily because my behavior was viewed as “crazy shit.”

I was, in Bon Jovian terms, “Shot down in a blaze of glory.”

The hypothesis I developed from this experience is that one must first establish a strong propensity for rationality (play it cool) before one demonstrates a compulsive surrender to an irrational romantic impulse. The transition from being cool & rational to being “romantic,” when exhibited by a rational agent (Keyword: Rational), is the very thing that yields a paradoxical advantage in that it would imply a romantic promise.


Irrationality, as Pinker implied, has a place in modern romantic interactions. But it is not something I would advise, especially at the beginning of an interaction.

I also doubt if the credibility implied by one’s compulsion for irrational romantic behavior is as valuable as the bargaining position achieved when one withholds romantic interest until the other reveals it first.

My conclusion: “If you have to be something, be rational.”



Follow me on Twitter: @dustincelestino

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.