Monday, June 23, 2008

The economics of love

The American Spectator's Joseph Lawer reviews economist Tim Harford's The Logic of Life:
[I]n the chapter entitled "Is Divorce Underrated," Harford argues that, from an economic perspective, there is a socially optimal level of divorce, and that it would signal some women's disutility if the divorce rate fell.
One study he uses to support this claim is based on a speed-dating experiment run by Michele Belot and Marco Francesconi. The two economists find that the quantity of numbers exchanged during a speed-dating event doesn't depend on the quality of the participants. Thus people aren't in fact holding out for their "one true love" -- despite what they might say. Harford uses this finding as part of his argument in favor of divorce: if people don't have one and only one significant other, they shouldn't be bound to their spouses permanently.
Belot and Francesconi's study, however, is limited in its conclusions because of the weakness of using data from a dating service for which the participants to register and pay a fee. Aren't the people most likely to go speed-dating also the most likely to have lower ideals of love?
What Harford (and Belot and Franscesconi) overlook is the role of habit and expectation in romance. By the time someone resorts to "speed dating," they have presumably already tried and failed at other ways of finding love, and their romantic habits and expectations have been shaped by the experience of failure.

The same is true with divorce. People whose parents are divorced are more likely to divorce themselves, because their habits and expectations have been shaped by their parent's experience. Where the expectation of romantic permanence is destroyed, habit and expectation lead people to enter into relationships with a mental clock ticking: How long until the relationship ends?

Joshua Harris has talked about how the modern system of dating is actually a preparation for divorce. Beginning in adolesence, young people get into the pattern of sequentially forming and dissolving romantic relationships: Hook up, hang out, break up, move on.

Consider this: The median age at first marriage in 1960 was about 21. It is now about 27. Yet studies indicate the median age at first sexual intercourse is 17. This means that the average young American will be sexually active for 10 years before marriage. During that decade of premarital sexual activity, how many partners will the average person have? Five? Ten? A dozen or more?

The experience of entering into and exiting intimate relationships with such frequency, over the course of so many years, shapes habits and expectations. An individual who arrives at the marriage altar after 10 years in the hookup/breakup/move-on cycle has become accustomed to viewing intimate relationships as temporary.

The habits and expectations of single life cannot be switched off as easily as some imagine. This is why delayed marriage does not, in general, result in better marriages. The longer someone stays in the hookup/breakup mode, the more ingrained the mentality of romantic impermanence becomes. And it is even easier to think of marriage as a temporary arrangement if one's own parents have divorced.

Harford's interpretation of the speed-dating experiment -- as a demonstration that people don't have a "one and only" and therefore should not be bound permanently in marriage -- is a case of turning an observation into a normative statement, viewing an "is" as an "ought." Undoubtedly, people who have spent many years in the singles scene will have a diminished capacity for romantic permanence. Accepting this condition as a norm, however, constitutes a surrender to cynicism.

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