Economists approach things in weird ways. I’ve noticed several posts on the more popular economic blogs recently discussing marriage, relationships, and sex: Are Husbands Really Like Potatoes? being a good example, as well as a discussion of polygamy. Tyler Cowen has even briefly looked at how nudity affects human behaviour (arguably not directly related to relationships, but it’s a fun read anyway).
Given that I like the economic way of thinking (given my limited training), I thought I’d take a look at dating, something close to my heart as a bachelor. This arguably makes me so far unqualified to discuss the subject - but I’ll give it a go anyway.
Most relationships go through three simply described phases:
Establishment - the fun part - getting to know a new person.
Established - the sometimes fun, sometimes not part. Most couples are in this phase right now.
Break-up - the not-so-fun part - upsetting, perhaps anger-generating. At the very least, not fun.
Successful long-term relationships, one hopes, never reach phase 3.
Most people enter relationships, I would assert, because they want a piece of phase 1 - it sounds like fun. Phase 3 is far away, and hopefully not going to happen anyway, so they downplay its significance. The question is - if phase 3 could be time-adjusted - expressed in the immediacy of today’s hurt rather than 3 years’ time - would people, on average, assess the situation any differently?
In fact, this comes down to a question of rationality. Economists like to assume that everyone is rational (or at least more rational than most people would). This means that people make optimal decisions, given the information they have. Without this, it’s hard to make markets make sense. Commonly expressed sentiments from friends after a break-up include: ‘at least you learnt something; remember the good times; it’s good you went through that relationship’. If cynical, one could dismiss those as simply statements designed to console and soften the blow. But the presumed implication of those words is that your choice was rational - it was worth the emotional upset in phase 3 for the enjoyment in phases 1 and 2.
I’m deliberately not going to come to a conclusion - I find rationality to be one of the hardest parts of economics - whilst I can understand people making rational choices about where to buy cornflakes from, it’s much harder to map it onto emotions. But it’d be nice to think that we do make sensible choices when it comes to dating, and that we do learn from our mistakes. I wonder if that’s so?
(NB: I know I’ve oversimplified the situation. But I think the same principles hold even if you develop dating into a more complex model)