Happy Halloween – Why A Little Thrill Is Good For your Love Life

In the early 70s (probably bored by the first oil price crisis) psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted a series of experiments. First, they sent a group of men down a rickety, wobbly bridge across a scary river. On the bridge, a woman asked them to complete a projective test that involves making up narratives about ambiguous pictures. A similar group of men was sent across a safe and sturdy bridge across a small creek and presented with the same test.

Guess what. The men who experienced the scary bridge produced narratives that were much richer in sexual content than the men on the safe bridge. Also, they called the female researcher back much more often (9 out of 18 vs. 2 out of 16 men). The results were corroborated in a laboratory setting with scary shocks, where the men anticipating shocks produced more sexual narratives and reported being more attracted to a female also present.

Hm. It looks like our hearts and minds are not very good at distinguishing where flutters and butterflies come from. Scary can mean hot. The nearest potential partner becomes more attractive. Feelings get a boo – st.

What can we do with this? Well, as wobbly bridges are rare these days, I would advocate you ride a roller coaster with your love at least once a month. And take advantage of the current season: check out the neighborhood’s scariest displays. No dodging the haunted houses…

Mothers In Law Are The Best Thing For Marriage

How the emergence of grandmothers helped build monogamy

You may remember the saving moment when granny arrived on the scene, a few days after the first baby decided (your) sleep was overrated. Grannies still know how to hold and soothe a baby, and many of them cannot think of anything that makes them happier. Grannies also, conveniently, biologically need sleep a little less than younger women.

While in modern times it can feel like they save young parents’ lives, in ancient times, they actually did save lives. Families who had a grandmother around, that is, a woman who would no longer bear children but could look forward to another twenty-odd years of life, had better survival chances. Granny could look after older children while mummy had a new baby at the breast, and daddy was free to go hunting. Families whose genes supported such a lifecycle, i.e. the end of female fertility during healthy years, were favored by evolution.

A recent PNAS article explains in more detail that an increase in life histories involving grandmothering had another beneficial side effect. In societies with active grandmothers as described above, fertile males would naturally outnumber fertile females. And as mentioned previously here and here, this also means, (fertile) women had higher bargaining power than men. Men needed to compete for fertile females; the latter could choose and thereby call the shots.

In a world where women call the shots (also see here), a couple of things happen to relationships and family life. You have empirically a higher incidence of monogamous marriage, higher earnings for men and higher wealth for young parents. – All symptoms of men working hard to obtain the favors of women.

In short, the emergence of grandmas has very likely helped couples form a strong and stable bond (as desired by -the newly powerful- women.)

With this in mind, a warm thanks to all grandmothers, and well wishes to all grandparents, on the occasion of National Grandparents’ Day, 13th September!

How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Love Advice from A Beautiful Mind – 5 Rational Dating Strategies

Rest In Peace, John Nash, hero of the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and of many an economics student’s a-ha experiences, who died end of last month. Nash received the economics Nobel Prize in 1994 for his findings in game theory. Game theory, which studies interaction and negotiation, is one of the best fields within economics to consult for dating. I thought, within the wealth of Nash’s publications, his paper on “Two-person Cooperative Games” sounded about right for our theme; and indeed it offers a wealth of lessons from both its assumptions and conclusions. While his assumption that people are rational gave me pause, it actually turns out very useful if you wish to err on the side of caution in your strategies.

But let’s begin. Here are 5 essential lessons from Nash’s work for daters.

  1. Make sure you can talk honestly with your date about everything of importance to you. If you want to cooperate at all, if you want to negotiate a good time together and maybe make some agreements, it is indispensable that the communication is open and honest. Otherwise, your agreements will be incomplete, or shaky, i.e. unreliable.
  2. It is important that you can make agreements that work for both. It almost goes without saying, but after all I hear and see happening to many friends that are dating, I am not sure we can take this one for granted. Nash himself felt he needed to point it out as a key assumption before modeling cooperative games. You need to be able to agree on something, so that both of you understand what is meant by the agreement, and understand it in the same way. You also need to able to comply with and fulfil any agreements made. Given that we are talking dating, these agreements can range from the light (like, agreeing on a time to meet to go to the cinema) to the serious (agreeing to go exclusive, or, eventually, marry…). The ability to fulfil agreements implies:
  3. None of you should have outside commitments that interfere with the relationship. Again, it should go without saying, but I am writing up some rational strategies here, based on a level-headed rational economist’s work. And from that perspective, anything can happen. Better check that your date does not come with baggage none of you is able to deal with. Neither should you. Incompatible outside commitments include, for example: being married, having another exclusive dating relationship, or having existing financial or time commitments that leave no money or no time worth mentioning for a new relationship.
  4. Don’t take altruism for granted. It is safer to assume that your counterpart will go as far as he/she can without losing you. Better assume this first and assess any degree of altruism well before agreeing to, like, go steady. (Hint: you want a lot of altruism, while being mindful that all that looks too good to be true probably is.)
  5. You may need an accountability framework. It is great if you can just blindly trust yourself and each other. But this is neither granted nor, possibly, as frequent as we’d like it to be. Nash suggests ‘something like an umpire’ to enforce agreements. Now, as this can prove complicated in dating, what about the following proxies: (i) a joint network of friends that knows or gets to know both of you well, and with whom you are willing to share where you stand dating wise; and (ii) for the younger or the more conservative among us: parents who are kept abreast of essential agreements. The accountability thing is naturally a small circle affair; I don’t advise publishing on facebook. It also should not be something that locks you into a relationship, but rather a trusted group that is in the know but otherwise neutral.

If this sounds too businesslike for love, ask yourself when you last held someone to these standards? If anything, your dating life deserves much more.

All this with the grain of salt that we are sometimes too irrational to apply the rationally obvious. But try and let me know how it goes!


‘Darling, I don’t have time’. – Dating in the times of Piketty , part III

I have already speculated about the trends that Thomas Piketty is foreseeing, here and here. More precisely, about their impact on our private and love lives.
It does not look good.
But several of the things I am gloomily musing will come from the inequality gap opening will unfold gradually, slowly. They will probably take a bit of time to manifest themselves globally.

Here’s a third impact that we are already feeling.

Couples today spend an average of two and a half hours a day together, including on weekends, according to a time use survey from the UK. And what do we do when we’re alone with our loved ones? Watch TV (one third of all the time spent together), eat (30 minutes) and do housework together (24 minutes). Ouch. We don’t have time to date. If we have a relationship, we don’t have time for it. And we fill the time together with must do-s or a complete intellectual switch-off (TV).

What does that have to do with Piketty’s findings. Let’s see.
The global wage bill is shrinking. This is one result of capital harvesting more of the available growth returns than labor. It means people need to work more to make ends meet. The self employed need more hours, part timers need to go full time, potential retirees need to keep working. What about those on a fixed salary, where hours’ relationship to salary is not straightforward?

Here a second time trend is relevant and interacts with Piketty’s predictions. Unionization is decreasing. Employers are gaining in relative power. They have an incentive to widen working hours beyond what is contractually agreed. And some people feel obliged to do this on their own, setting new (non-contractual) standards for all. This latter one is already happening and has been happening for a while, across the economy. Do you know anyone that works the 45 hours stated in their contract? I struggle to think of a single one. Everyone works more. It has been so ingrained in the culture that it makes people smile if you think aloud about it. Your commuting time is your leisure, even if you are on a device for work. Should it be?

Our hope is that the millenials will take the role of unions and negotiate for good working hours. Arianna’s Thrive movement is also promising.

For the time being though, I am just watching and wondering.

About that Pay Gap….The Dark Side

I wrote previously about the gender pay gap, the difference of women’s and men’s earnings, here.

That’s enough of a dark side you may think. But trust me, it gets darker.

Admittedly, the current discussion of That Pay Gap in the media is taking place largely among fairly powerful women; women who earn well enough to sustain themselves and more. The headline grabbing lawsuits on that matter usually concern women in, or just one step away from, executive leadership in profitable corporations.

What does the situation look like at the margin of empowerment, and, at the margin of poverty? To start, let’s think about a fundamental difference between men and women that is a bit uncomfortable to consider: women, also very poor women, always have a currency to pay in. There is always one thing they can offer and it’s usually worth money. Do you see where I am going? There is a huge market out there for female straight sex, and such a market does not exist for male straight sex. I am not saying this is an advantage – right now in the world it does not play out as one.

This paper by Damien de Walque and others shows that conditional cash transfers can get men and women to lead healthier sex lives and reduce their risk of contracting HIV substantially. Once the cash transfer is taken away, the behavior change persists among men but not among women.


Here is what happens: when the money is lacking, women need to pay with sex. Riskier sex pays better. This is not a lifestyle choice; it is a survival necessity. Men cannot do this, on the one hand; and do not need to do it on the other: they likely earn more than women anyway.

At the margin of empowerment, the gender pay gap forces women to be more available for sex.

Three Theories About That Pay Gap

It is no news. Women, the world over, earn less than men. Some of the famous gender pay gap is due to women’s professional choices, and to baby breaks. But this paper by Gillian Paull shows that, even when you carefully account for baby breaks, education and sector (and more), there still is a gap left.

What. The heck. Is That Gap??

Theory Number 1

Women don’t negotiate – at all, or don’t negotiate well. Employers know this, and rationally, take advantage of it by paying less than they would to a man (who can be expected to negotiate). A lot of popular books look into this, and its potential remedies, like Know Your Value by Mika.

I am sure this explains part of it, but not all. How about

Theory Number 2

Women are not allowed to signal success. This one is my favorite, and the one of which I seem to have most anecdotal evidence. Time and again I see men recount their successes. Not offensively so, but certainly confidently, and always attributing success to their own achievements. Never, really never, have I seen a man in the workplace attribute his success to luck or fate. When women signal their own success, it provokes smirks, mockery, or criticism. Cohorts of middle management feel entitled if not right-out divinely called to chip away at that evil woman’s assertiveness.

The women in my sample have ended up with one of three results: (i) They stop signaling. Their assertiveness leaves them never to return, and they go on producing successes no one ever attributes to them. This is the most frequent outcome, which naturally also results in lower wages. (ii) They withdraw and leave jobs until they find an environment that is fairer in its assessment, or they create it themselves in a start-up. This is somewhat rarer and can take a long time. And the rarest outcome is that (iii) women stay where they are, put their chin up and face the criticism right on. Those that are successful with it sometimes have an older male supportive colleague that negotiates their fate like an old-testament dad would the future of his daughter.

Some women have looked through the dynamics of i-iii and made a conscious effort to stay at iii. Several of them are very senior.

Theory Number 3

Women do not know their value. And they don’t know that they don’t know it. The most striking example I read about is this one. In the world of fashion and fast cars, models and women with similar exceptional beauty attend VIP parties without charging for their presence, while the VIP ‘friend’ that brokered their attendance gets a juicy commission.

Before I write myself into a complete rage, let’s spend that energy on a solution.

# 1 Remedy

Wake up, and sisterize. What about the following strategy, ladies: (i) realize that in many situations you are not paid (enough) when you should be, (ii) act in solidarity with each other and enlist as many friends as possible when making your claim for higher pay. The good old fashioned trade unions have been shown to work some way towards reducing gender pay gaps. But even without formal unionization, an informal united front of women (let’s call it sisterization) that share information and claim payment at value should go a long way.

This takes the humble realization that we are replaceable. Whenever we are not, we can negotiate as monopolists. But when we are, it takes a sisterhood.

Emotionally unavailable?! 3 Steps out of The Rut

You know what the words mean, I am sure. But let me briefly illustrate.

Thelma is an attractive woman in her late thirties. She has had several boyfriends, but always something was missing. She has been going out with Jack for nearly two years – exclusively but without any physical expression of love. Not even holding hands. Jack, a successful 45 year old, is also still living with his parents in their large house and has a hard time contemplating moving out. – Sensibly,  Thelma left before they hit the two year mark. The only people she has been attracted to since were still in a relationship.

What is going on here? Well, Jack is not really available for an exclusive relationship; his heart is safely parked at his parents’. But Thelma neither: she unconsciously picks people who could never offer a full, durable, emotional relationship. Where there’s no relationship, none can be broken. True risk safely avoided.

What do economists make of this? What is an ’emotionally unavailable’ person doing in economic terms?
She is not on the market. She is not buying, let alone investing. Keeps her money safely in a low or no interest savings account, while she goes through the motions of shopping. We are talking about an extreme risk aversion here, that for tops is unconscious. The aversion is so high it keeps you out of any chances of a substantial return on your investment. Risk averse people want insurance. Thelma and Jack insure against the essential risks of amorous relationships by keeping healthy amour out; the true mutual connection.

How doe we get the amour back in? What can be done?

  • Step 1 would be to make the process conscious. Instead of unconsciously avoiding productive risks, Thelma and Jack would consciously avoid them. Nothing wrong here, if that makes them happy.
  • If it doesn’t make them happy, then in the medium run, step 2 would mean a realistic assessment of the risks of investing. Are they sizeable? Certainly. But not higher for oneself than for others. (Thelma needs to reality check her self esteem. And correct upwards. One way to do this is to avoid people that drag us down with reproaches and criticism. Sometimes this means creating distance to formerly close chums. And creating more proximity with friends that lift us up and appreciate us.)
  • Step 3 would finally entail some stepwise and careful and proactive risk taking. Without inbuilt insurance. But with the option to dial back at any step if needed.

There are no guarantees. You may be hurt.

Or you may bond forever.

Holidays without A Better Half? – A 5-Step Survival Plan

I am not quite sure I should be writing this. After all, I am *everything but* without a better half. I have the world’s hunkiest husband, who is currently playing with two adorable little wild beasts on the corridor.
But, boy, do I remember how it was without him. In fact, it is a recurring nightmare that I have: being unmarried and having to decide among a bunch of unpalatable ex-es. These are nightmares that feel quite real. During the dream I genuinely forget that I am married. It’s scary and lonely. And the options look between dour and unfeasible. A group of friends and family that stand around, bewildered and without understanding, does not help.  – And then I wake up next to The Man and feel like singing Handel’s Alleluia, multi-voice.

In other words: dears, I know what I am talking about. Been there. You are not alone. From the vantage point of someone in safe haven, but with a good view of the ups and downs of single-hood, here comes my survival plan for your holidays:

1 – Read the biography of a great single man or woman. (There are MANY. Composers, writers, poets, politicians, successful entrepreneurs – each century has had a few, of both genders.) Take a step back from the couple focus.
2 – Promote this idea to your family: not everyone needs to have a partner. You may use evidence from the biography you are reading. (You don’t have to believe this yourself, but the real bunch that you want to take a step back is your family.)
3 – Focus on yourself. Pamper yourself, become yourself – just better. Train the muscles you’d wish you had, or the skill you’d like to have. Schedule a makeover with a pro, or a friend whose taste you trust. Beautify your best side.
4 – Be the person that is missing from another person’s life. This need not be ‘somebody’s partner’, but another helping hand at the family dinner, or with your cousin’s little wild kids, the community activities of the season, or in the places that lack staff during the holidays but are bitterly needed: hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, nursery homes, orphanages. You will never know how much you are appreciated till you try.
5 – Number three and four should keep you busy already. But if you have some downtime left: dream. Sit down with yourself and make your personal wish list for the next year. Stick to a maximum of three wishes total if possible. If that includes a partner, work on it and be specific: what are his/her five non-negotiable traits. Promise yourself you won’t accept a second date with someone that does not meet them. After all, dating is about spending one’s time wisely and economically for best results. That’s called optimization.

Happy Holidays!

Love from your Economist.

Power, Commitment and Dating: 5 Lessons from Jean Tirole

Jean Tirole recently received the prize in memory of Alfred Nobel for Economics, for his work on firms’ market power. Understanding how his sharp insights translate into the world of dating took me considerable mulling over, although it now feels obvious upon hindsight.

You probably all remember a beau that casually dated many women at once, “stringing them along” without making up his mind on who he should become exclusive with. Or a woman that nourished many admirers’ hopes for a long time, without settling with any one, but also without letting any one of them pursue another woman. Such is the nature of power in the dating market. And Tirole’s insights are highly relevant (and make for wicked strategies, actually).

Here are five key lessons:

1. People with power in the dating market can effectively ward off competitors. For a description of what that might look like, see above, and dig in your high school memories.

2. You can tell commitments from non-commitments, even in a powerful person. True commitments are actions that are hard to reverse. For example, if she moves house to be near you, that would be a commitment. As would be a publicly announced engagement, or, of course, marriage. Declaring the relationship exclusive to close friends, and to any admirers or former dates probably also counts. However, spending time with you, being intimate, and/or being generous with you, is no commitment. It can be stopped at will.

3. Dating market power is hard to maintain. Warding off a competitor is costly; it will take time and effort to string along that one woman that is already turning her head towards someone else, or that one admirer that is about to give up.

4. But power can be broken. If put under the right kind of pressure, the monopolist beau or belle will behave as if powerless. If the above described effort to maintain power is altogether more painful than losing that person from one’s circle of influence so to speak, then the powerful dater will let his subject move on. So the trick is to push the boundaries: if you are the competitor, i.e. the dating market entrant that would like to snatch one worthy date from the circle around the beau, just keep the lady of your intentions as busy and entertained as you can. It needn’t be with dates; if you have other avenues to meet her or engage her along her interests, even without you being involved (sports clubs, work, volunteering, your friends etc), do so. Make sure the monopolist beau will have a hard time keeping up (or finding spare minutes in her calendar). If she is not his favorite, he will let go.

5. Building up that kind of dating power from scratch can be a ton of work. Obtaining uniqueness in the dating world, to the extent that one can exercise market power, is comparable to  investing until securing a patent. What could those investments look like in the dating world? Building up a network, organizing social events, fun activities and gatherings, attracting and hosting interesting conversations…are all activities that enhance popularity and thereby dating power. It might also help to hit the gym three times a week until in ship shape. In some cases Miss or Mr monopolist may have a huge advantage on these accounts; too huge for anyone to follow. If a potential follower fails to realize (aka be impressed by) the size of the task, a stiff competition can ensue and the leader effectively be leapfrogged. Ha!

No guarantees when you apply any of this in real life…