27 July 2018

The economics of Love Island

By Camille Cross

If you were not one of the millions of viewers who have spent the summer glued to Love Island, you might think the reality TV programme is all about matters of the heart. You’d be wrong. Allow me to explain.

Love Island is a reality TV show in which men and women are required to ‘couple up’ and find love, while also remaining popular enough among their fellow Islanders and the public to remain in the villa, and win the final prize of £50,000. You don’t need a relationship expert to understand the programme. Instead, you need game theory.

Each person in a relationship needs to be strategic in order to remain in the Villa and find their perfect partner. When in the villa there is the probability that your partner may leave you. You may leave your partner for someone new. Or you and your partner could remain together. Both islanders in any couple are trying to maximise their benefit from coupling up. If they break apart they risk being single and sent home. Or they risk failing to create a couple, and again being sent home. There are clear and obvious benefits to coupling with a partner, but clear individual wins from switching to increase chances to stay in the villa (and getting that £50,000 prize).

Megan, in order to increase her chances of staying in the Villa after her break up with Eyal, cracked on with Wes while he was still with Laura. Megan, aware that Wes was already considering others while he was with Laura when his head was turned for Ellie on a date, knew that he would consider leaving Laura for her.

All Islanders have the choice to either stay together in their current couple or break up when new islanders enter the villa or become single. Wes has the choice, similar to the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, of either breaking up with Laura (knowing that she may do the same if someone more suited comes into the villa) or cracking on with Megan knowing she would choose him over all other boys in the villa. Always moving onto the next partner who fancies you reduces your risk of being left by your current partner.

At the beginning of July this year’s batch of Islanders were put to the ultimate test when the boys were forced to move to another villa, Casa Amor, filled with six new girls. And while the original boys were away another six new boys were sent into the original villa to tempt the remaining females.

All islanders face the problem that their partner might recouple and leave them single before they are reunited. Individuals end up recoupling with new partners even if neither of them actually desired it to ensure their safety and security in the villa.

This is known as the Security Dilemma. In traditional political theory it applies to countries. States increase their security by increasing military power. In this situation, both countries are unsure if the other is increasing their security. In order to combat this potential threat they increase their own. This then heightens tensions between the nations even though neither country particularly wanted it.

The Love Islanders are no different from Warsaw Pact and Nato states: each has an unclear view of the real thoughts of the others. The constant pressure to break and couple and break again leaves contestants fatigued and distrustful. They up their guards, they play minor political games and they leave us all hungry for more.

To make matters worse, past series have present the winning couple with the classic prisoners dilemma when they are asked if they want to split the prize money. If they both agree to split, they take half the money each. If one says they want to keep all the money and the other says they are happy to split, the former walks away with £50,000. If they both try to keep all the prize money, they walk away with nothing.

After all the tests that Love Island throws at their contestants I can’t help but wonder, is it all worth it? Based on their endorsements afterwards, the economic answer is a clear yes.

This year Love Island had more applicants than Oxford and Cambridge. But with over 80,000 people wanting to be on the show and only 33 becoming islanders meaning, applicants have a success rate of 0.04 per cent. Comparatively, people who applied to Oxbridge have an average success rate of around 20 per cent.

On the face of it, the £200 contestants receive each week doesn’t even match a week’s earnings on the minimum wage. And the £50,000 prize money only goes to the winning couple.

But, as Frontier Economics has calculated, the average income from endorsements for contestants after they leave the villa is quite a bit higher. While it all depends on how long they remain in the villa, even if they stay in the villa for a quarter to half the length of the series, they could earn up to £1 million the next year. That’s a pretty penny compared to the £31,584 which the average Oxford graduate earns within a year after their three-year course. Even a very short stint on the show could earn you £300,000, around 10 times more than the Oxford graduate.

Statistically, you have a lower chance of getting into the villa than into Oxford or Cambridge (ignoring entry requirements), but for a significantly shorter “study” period on Love Island you are more likely to receive a higher income than graduates of Britain’s top universities.

The price of fame, though, is perhaps best left for individuals to calculate for themselves.

Camille Cross works at the Adam Smith Institute.