The Feat of the Cheat

Sadly, cheating happens. Media earn very well from reports on celebrity cheating. Both men and women are guilty, if in different shares. Why people cheat is open to debate and we, frankly, don’t know. But economists can say something about what happens to cheats – the feat of the cheat.

A marriage is an investment. A huge investment, usually into monogamy among other things, consciously foregoing other opportunities. A cheater renounces that investment while the other party still pays dues. Problem is, the other party usually suspects.

Economists call what happens next the ‘hold-up’ problem. Suspicion, lack of trust in a joint undertaking leads to hold-up of own contributions. Like attention, time, chores, love, honesty, loyalty….or all of these. The more likely someone is to cheat, the more likely he will be missing any of the above.

What can be done? The best prevention of this is to make the marital commitment rock-solid from the start. Different cultures have experimented differently, but remedies include wedding witnesses (with whom reputation can be lost), joint property, the administrative costs of dissolving a civil marriage, prohibition of divorce of catholic marriages, up to more draconian punishments under sharia (which were probably never meant to be carried out in the first place, but to threaten people into compliance).

A commitment ‘written in stone’ has the opposite effect to a hold-up: opening up of the partners pays. Giving more attention, time, chores, love, you name it – cannot be lost. What happens in the marriage stays in the marriage – rather than in Vegas..

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