Opposites Distract

A Tale of Two Lives

My grandma Ann was a sporty, almost athletic woman who loved to swim. She had learned home economics in an exclusive boarding school and was a highly professional housewife. She knew the nutritional content of every staple food by heart and spent all morning cooking and straightening the house, aided by a maid. The afternoons were for looking after the kids and/ or paying and receiving calls. Her husband, my grandpa, worked long hours in his own law practice. I am not sure how much time their lifestyles left for joint leisure. On Sundays there was mass – which my grandma enjoyed and grandpa didn’t. And a bit of joint paying and receiving calls, according to a code that is no longer in use. (The maid would bring three business cards on a tray to announce a visiting couple: one from the wife and the husband each for grandma, and one from the husband for grandpa. Because a lady would not call on a gentleman.) My grandparents’ marriage project did not include a big plan for joint spare time; that was a secondary question if a question at all. They were from the same broader region but otherwise not very much the same. If they had something you could call hobbies, grandma loved doing sports with the kids, and churchy things. Grandpa went deer hunting with his buddies.Their tastes and views differed in books, music, politics and culture more generally. I know for a fact they voted for different parties all their lives. Opposites had attracted each other very much, they married young. It was more important for them to economically complement each other; grandma’s perfect running of the household including all nooks and crannies allowed grandpa to rise in his career, gain some notoriety in his profession and thereby build modest wealth for his family.

My other granny’s story is quite different. After secondary school, she had learned a trade that would earn her money. She worked several years as a commercial and legal secretary, and ended up running the front office of a regional court. Having turned down several marriage proposals, she may have started to worry parents and acquaintances with her insistence to marry for love alone. Finally, at the (then mature) age of 29, she accepted my grandfather who swept her off her feet. This marriage was two birds of a feather flocking together. Her teacher husband loved soft classical music, historic books and endless conversations with friends at least as much as she did if not more. They were both deeply religious; they also voted for the same party. The part time nature of their work allowed them to spend some leisure together and many family photos show the two of them with the kids. They took vacations and loved adventurous outings on their two huge motorbikes before the war did them part.

Love and technological change

What happened in the few years between my two grannies’ marriage dates? How come one follows a more traditional and one a seemingly more modern pattern? According to a paper by Lundberg and Pollak in 2007, two fundamental technical developments changed the lives of families in the first half of the 20th century: the surgence of household machines, and the pill. Before the advent of the machines, it was useful for partners to specialize, that is, for the husband to work and for the wife to look after the house and any children. Different skills sets and possibly different personalities in either half of the couple would allow this arrangement to work best. Tastes and likes were secondary, as Gary Becker’s seminal work on family economics underlines.

Household machines alleviated a housewife’s workload. A washing machine, even an antique one, allowed to handle multiples of the load that one could do with a scrubbing board on a basin. Coffee machines freed up one soul in the household to do something else for twenty minutes. This meant, that once the kids were in school, the woman could also go to work outside the house. Rewarded work made sense for women, and it made sense for their parents to invest in an education that would prepare for it. The pill (or other accessible forms of family planning) supported this trend as women could complete a full cycle of education well into their childbearing years. (On this one, also see Raquel Fernandez’s work.)

Women grew into a position to earn and to look after themselves. They did not need a breadwinner but won their own bread. In these circumstances, marriage was no longer a must. There were viable outside options for a young woman, at least economically; if probably at a social cost.

Love and leisure

Marriages became more of a choice than a necessity. They needed a joint fun component, and a leisure component. Joint leisure was made possible by the technological revolution in household machinery. In this world, husband and wife want to spend time together that they both enjoy. They want to have conversations for the sake of them, not because they are needed. To this end, it is recommendable to choose a partner that is similar in education and tastes. A partner that likes to do the same things in his leisure rather than a partner that occupies himself most efficiently in a complementary manner while his other half is also efficiently occupied in her job. The more salient joint leisure is in your life, the more opposites distract.

Social atavism?

The coupling of similar people is a feature we observe strongly in contemporary marriages. This so-called assortative mating has increased over time, and keeps increasing still. Partners are now usually close in education and wage, and also height, weight, and age. High-flying athletic lawyers tend to marry high flying athletic lawyers.  This does not mean that a regression on the social evolution over the generations is impossible. Opposites do find and attract each other sometimes, and it is not always clear where likeness ends and opposite-ness begins. In this day and age, however, there can be a tension between the economic reality and a traditional relationship model. Marriages between opposites last less long, on average, than those between well assorted mates.

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!

 

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.

Mothers As Benign Dictators: 3 Economic Problems Solved By Motherhood

We have been hearing a lot about things mothers worry about, problems they see and experience more than others. I would therefore like to dedicate this one minute read to three problems that true motherhood effectively solves.

1. Communal goods. Goods with more than one proprietor rarely work, see communism. A pasture that belongs to all shepherds of a town usually gets overused (economists call this the Tragedy of the Commons), and a kitchen in a student flatshare accumulates dirt or more. This is because one person can load the costs of his or her actions onto others without paying for them. Well, we only have interest in loading costs onto others if we don’t care for them too much. Mothers Care. Big time. Altruism undoes the Tragedy of the Commons because we care about others’ woes as much as our own.

2. Externalities. The process of being able to unload our costs onto others is called externality. It does not only happen with common goods, it also happens in pollution, excessively loud music etc. Externalities have been known to happen even between people who like each other. Like siblings, say. So called omniscient planners can detect and prevent externalities. Like, hm, mothers. They know. They see. They act. Turn down that blaster.

3. Natural Monopolies. A natural monopoly arises when it does not pay to have more than one provider of a good or service. There is then a risk that this sole provider charges too high a price or excludes people. I would reckon that in many families the car is such a natural monopoly, or the TV…or any asset that is too expensive to buy twice and sometimes hard to use by more than one person at once. In these cases too, mum can take a stand and manage access with fairness and altruism. Bloccupying the TV or car is not a sustainable strategy with most mums, my mum included….

In short, mothers can undo those problems that economic theory has found a so called ‘well meaning dictator’ can solve. The issue is that in the great wide world, well meaning dictators are a rare species. In our families however, we may know one or two.

Who’s in Your League?

Charlotte is an extremely attractive woman in her late 30s. She is college educated, compassionate, sporty (good skier) and her beautiful craftwork could make Martha Stewart envious. No kidding. It would be easy to write her ad without any exaggeration. She has never had a want of suitors since the age of 13, when I first met her. – Still, she has been just as extremely unlucky in love. After several broken relationships, she is just about to give up on the couple thing. One thing that did puzzle me was her choice of partners: while honest and friendly, they were quite average in about everything else including looks, education, interests and effort.

Charlotte, for all I can see, has never held out for somebody in her own league. I would rather place her film star looks, bright mind and exquisite taste next to a hard-working, highly educated overachiever. A category that neither of her former partners inhabited.
This prompts me to plough the literature for 5 facts to keep in mind when choosing your own league:

  1.  You need to set your own standard and search for it. If you don’t find the quality you are looking for where you are, (also if you don’t really know how good things can get) you need to cast your net more widely. This means online dating, singles groups and, why not, the classic matchmaker. It also means pursuing your values. Fighting for a cause, whether in politics, an NGO or in your neighborhood community will unearth people who think on your wavelength.
  2. Men tend to overestimate, women to underestimate their attractiveness. (And within each gender, more attractive people underestimate, and less attractive ones overestimate their prowess.) Says this research. What is more, men become especially overconfident with attractive women. In the light of this, ladies and gentlemen (and stunners and wallflowers) kindly adjust your earlier assessment of yourself.
  3. Your league is relative. It can always be higher than you thought, in the right environment. As several speed dating studies found, your dating opportunities depend largely on circumstance. So choose your circumstances wisely.
  4. People in your league tend to like the same things as you. Taste is a good proxy for education, and education and effort are reasonable proxies for achievement. Moreover, it is good to choose a partner that likes the same things as you and enjoys doing them together; this will enhance relationship quality later on says research quoted here.
  5. Your confidence signals who you are. Check here. In a world where people don’t know you yet, they will go by the signal you send yourself. If it places a high value on yourself, that is the value people will assume.

 

 

 

World Women’s Day: 5 Things That Happen When Women Have the Upper Hand In Dating

How can we find out what happens when women have the upper hand in dating? Does it ever happen? And what if? – One situation where women certainly have bargaining power is when men outnumber women. A high ratio of men to women means men compete for women and women can choose.

There are several situations where we find a high gender ratio: some countries (last week we discussed China), some immigrant communities, social groups and others.  Economists have studied several of these and have found 5 outcomes in the relationship world when women have the upper hand.

  1. There are more marriages. Groups where men outnumber women see their marriage rates go up, compared to groups with even gender ratios.
  2. Men earn more. As men have to make an effort to gain an edge over potential competitors for women, one area they excel in is income.
  3. Women tend to work less. Overall, fewer women choose to work outside the home. This suggests that, at least in the communities studied, many women had the latent wish to be homemakers.
  4. Couples earn more. Women, who choose to work, earn more on average than working women in gender-even societies. Combined with point 3, this means that women won’t get up for less than a certain salary any more.
  5. Children born in this environment are better off. After all the above, it’s an empirical fact that in societies where men compete for women, parents of young children earn more. Children grow up in wealthier households than in societies where women have less bargaining power.

In other words, based on robust evidence: bargaining power for women is a pretty good thing, for about everyone.

Are You The Odd Woman (or Man) Out? – 5 Things to Get You Into The Game

Clara is a beautiful woman of 38 years, well above average in looks, intelligence and success. With her golden brown hair and small round nose she looks kind of seasonal now – a bit angelic. Still, she is without a partner and in her social circles, feels like the odd woman out. Basically all men her age are partnered and the very few, who are not, objectively do not meet Clara’s attractiveness on any scale.  It feels like a matching game has been played and she was left out.

If Clara looks around her workplace and friends she will see that there is indeed a surplus of single women in her age range. (She works in a prestigious NGO.) This of course puts her at a disadvantage: if she has to compete with women for fewer available men, she will have to trade below par, or, in plain terms, lower her expectations below what she could get in a more gender balanced environment.

Therefore recommendation number 1 for Clara:

  1. Meet more people. Widen your circle of friends: you can re-discover a forgotten hobby, learn a sport you always wanted to – or start any new activity you are interested in to meet new people who are likely to become friends. More precisely:
  2. Seek out activities where the opposite gender is numerous. So, as a woman check out sports, outdoors, computer related hobbies and about everything that involves speed: car racing, speed boats and space tourism. (Examples courtesy of my husband.) As a man, seek out literature, the arts, yoga, zumba, prancercise and philanthropy. For example. Biking and running groups should work for both genders. And if you are really serious about settling down in the near future:
  3. Mind your values. In addition to the activities that just widen your circle, make sure to include some that foster values that are dear to you. Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples should have activities for singles. Causes like the environment, fair trade, mentoring of at risk youth can also help find and bond with kindred spirits.
  4. Focus on the essential. Arm yourself with a checklist of values and characteristics your partner would need to embody. I recommend between 3 and 8 – neither too few nor too many. You need to keep a mental note of these criteria with you at all times. People that don’t meet the list are out and have no claim on your (dating-) attention and time.
  5. Your dating objective first. If you are past 35 and unmatched, odds are that you gave generously of your time and attention to others, based on their need; maybe your family of origin, your work, or friends you felt needed you. These are all worthy claimants, but it’s time to re-focus on your own objectives. Your time and attention are first of all your own and you can employ them where you feel they best help you. (In other words: the earlier you learn to say No, the earlier you will say Yes to the right person.)

5 Things That Keep You Faithful

It’s wonderful to marry. It’s wonderful to be married. And in many cases it’s wonderful to stay married for life. There are the obvious exceptions when relationships become unbearable at least for one party. But there are also the break-ups that needn’t be. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I see many broken up marriages that could have been great. No abuse anywhere, two intelligent and loving people with great hope…but often – unfaithfulness creeping in out of nowhere.

Sometimes I see the first symptoms; partners not wearing their wedding band and giving a pretend-unmarried face to the world and their colleagues. When in reality they are very married. Or people sending mixed signals: no wedding band, but frequent mention of their partner. Unless the person is affiliated to a culture that doesn’t know the ring as a symbol – I don’t trust the wedding-band shirkers, also in matters unrelated to marriage.

So today’s column is about staying faithful. More precisely, about how to resist the temptation to the contrary. Our recommendations are inspired by recent research from a team of international sociologists, and actually apply to various areas of life:

  1. You can successfully say ‘No’ to temptation most of the time. Among common daily temptations (not necessarily for relationships, but for example for ice cream, internet surfing etc), people fail to resist only 17% of the time.
  2. But beware: self-control tires out. Resistance is a depleting reservoir. Failure occurs after many successful attempts to fend off temptation.  The main recommendation coming out of this is the next point:
  3. The best strategy to resist temptations is to avoid them altogether. In this way, you do not have to use your weakening resistance muscle, and can keep it ready for the unavoidable temptation. Faithful people work mainly by avoiding temptation, not by fighting it.
  4. Alcohol not only weakens resistance but actually makes temptation stronger. Stay away from alcohol and other mind-altering drugs. Also,…
  5. Stay away from people who yield to the temptations you want to avoid. Watching others succumb to a temptation makes you more likely to do the same. I guess, in the case of infidelity, which always involves two, this argument is even stronger: if you are around people who are ready to be unfaithful, it is more likely to happen to you.  – So, switch workplace, sports club or other circles if they have a high density of cheaters.

A Marriage Premium for Men

When economists talk about returns to marriage, they usually refer to women. There is good evidence that women, on average, ‘earn’ from marrying, through the husband’s higher wage. There is even a return to education that women can reap through marriage: highly educated women meet highly educated men (at university for example) i.e. the men who earn more than the less educated. (In some parts of the world, this will be the only return to education women will ever reap; nada with working outside the home.)

The news is that men, too, earn a marriage premium. But they earn it themselves. Here is how the story goes. Men who wish to marry make an effort in their job and by the time they marry, they actually have managed to improve their earnings. Marriage is enticing, and working towards it improves men’s professional and economic status. “If there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue-collar jobs over white-collar jobs” writes Eric Gould who studied the subject.

There is of course the risk that you pick up the fact that more prosperous men marry more easily anyway (and got prosperous by other motivations). But Eric Gould controlled for this issue and managed to strip out the domino chain that links the prospect of marriage to effort rather than the other way round. Only pitfall: the effect only works for average and lower earning men; highly earning men do not improve themselves by dreaming about marriage, they are already motivated.

Why Women Should Propose

Laura and her boyfriend Ed had dated for 6 years and lived together for five. They led a joyful, loving and successful life together as entrepreneurs in a European metropole. Their personalities completed each other: he, an introvert, polite, soft-spoken, laid back and the modern version of the humble scientist; she, an extrovert, passionate planner and organizer, presenter and confessing to an exhibitionist touch both professionally and privately. They indulged in the different hobbies they both brought to the relationship (he: avant-garde art, she: wedding fairs and books). They had jointly travelled half the globe, had a network of hundreds of common friends and intended to keep leading this life forever. The only thing missing: Ed just.did.not.propose. When Laura’s mother-in-law asked her about wedding plans, she owned up about the missing proposal. Ed’s mum then encouraged her to propose herself, as she thought would be fitting for an emancipated young woman. Laura plotted and planned and delivered a very romantic proposal to Ed. She proposed in a hot air balloon in the French countryside. Ed said yes. And for the protocol, he counter proposed not much later, in a helicopter. They have been married for 9 years now.

This may be the most radical post to date. Why should it matter who proposes? Other than for tradition, say. Well, tradition goes further than what we usually assume; it’s where the power sits. And if it is about proposing in a relationship, the first mover wins. He or she sets the agenda more than the one who reacts.

As reviewed by Nobel Prize Winner Dale Mortensen in 1988, an algorithm devised by Gale and Shapley in 1962 can be used to match employers and employees or husbands and wives. A series of matching outcomes is stable if no paired person has the desire to rather be single. However, in a given matching outcome some people can be better of than others. E.g. a matched person would not prefer to be single but rather be paired with someone else. While several people are happy with whom they are paired with. And it can be shown that the outcome is actually most favorable for those individuals who proposed the match first. They have more options to choose from than the ones who react and only can choose between different proposals.

So ladies, if you want to take charge of your relationship happiness, make a move. First.