April 7, 2011

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Spousonomics: Using economics to master love, marriage, and dirty dishes

I love research-backed books that help us understand why we do what we do. Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson’s Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes was no exception. The book takes a look at common marital conflicts and situations, showing the underlying economic principles that influence our actions. For example:

  • Division of labour: Splitting chores equally may not result in the most efficient or the happiest of marriages. Specialize, remembering that payoffs can change over time.
  • Loss aversion: People hate to lose, which can result in really drawn-out fights. The advice to “never go to bed angry” can backfire. It’s okay to have time-outs.
  • Supply and demand: If you want something to happen more often, don’t make it costly or risky.
  • Moral hazard: It’s easy to take good things for granted. It’s also easy to end up trying to avoid any sort of conflict. The sweet spot is in the middle, where you’re not taking your relationship for granted, but you’re not paranoid about your spouse quitting.
  • Incentives: Think about the incentives you use and if they’re really effective. Trust can be much more useful than nagging.
  • Trade-offs: Think at the margin: consider the costs and benefits of small changes. Ignore sunk costs when making decisions. Get over the “it’s not fair” fixation.
  • Asymmetric information: Communicate clearly. Don’t play games by hiding or withholding information. Figure out the essentials of what you need to share so that you don’t overload your spouse.
  • Intertemporal choice: It’s easy to make good decisions for the future, but hard to stick with those decisions in the present. Use commitment devices to help you stick with your resolutions or good ideas.
  • Bubbles: Non-bubbly married life is normal, so don’t stress out if you’re no longer infatuated. Beware of being unduly influenced by groups – just because everyone else seems to be doing something doesn’t mean it’s right for you, too. Don’t get overconfident.
  • Game theory: Don’t let the urge to retaliate or overcompensate lead to you to wildly polarized positions. Work together to get optimal results, not just individually-optimal results, and use commitment devices to help you stick with it.

The book goes into far more depth, and is an excellent read. It’s illustrated with case studies (problem couples who usually end up patching things up) and lots of research.

Here are some thoughts I particularly like:

If there are areas you care about but you feel helpless in, put in the time and effort to develop the comparative advantage in at least one of them. The authors tell the story of one economist who put the time into at least learning how to bathe an infant so that his wife wouldn’t end up with all the child-rearing tasks – and so that he wouldn’t get tempted to take advantage of that kind of a division.

Looking for things to read? In terms of marriage research, I’d recommend “Spousonomics” and Susan Page’s “The 8 Essential Traits of Couples who Thrive”. What do you like?