Thursday, July 06, 2006

Nagging

Within couples or families, when our partners reduce the relationship surplus by shirking their responsibilities or engaging in "annoying" activities, we frequently resort to nagging in order to change the undesirable behavior. Nagging (or the threat of nagging) serves to raise the cost of the undesirable behavior, thus encouraging one's partner to "behave." While the basic economics of this strategy are ok (raise the price of undesirable activity => reduction in undesirable activity), nagging never struck me as a very effective relationship bargaining strategy.

Certainly, nagging will inevitably be part of any relationship, and it will even work sometimes. The problem with nagging is its overuse -- particularly at the expense of more efficient (and effective) strategies.

Nagging is popular because it is cheap. When someone engages in behavior that reduces our welfare, we get upset (typically in proportion to how much welfare we've lost). When we feel bad, it is normal to want to "let off some of the steam." Nagging is an easy way to do this (while also trying to prevent the situation from arising in the future). As such, it is common.

However, this does not imply that it is efficient. While I will assume that nagging is rational for the nagger (i.e., the expected benefits of nagging outweigh the costs), the relationship as a whole may be worse off because the costs imposed on the nagged may be greater than the net benefit to the nagger. Further, because nagging is frequently not effective at eliminating unwanted behaviors (e.g., the threat of nagging is not enough to overwhelm habits), the nagging escalates which only increases the net loss to the relationship by reducing the net benefit to the nagger and imposing larger costs on the nagged. Inevitably the loss of relationship surplus associated with this puts the relationship on a trajectory toward larger blow ups and potential break-up.

In light of nagging's limited potential, it is important to think about other strategies for altering relationship behaviors because no matter how hard you search there is no perfect mate this stuff is gonna come up. This article from the NYTimes describes some nice substitutes for nagging that the author, Amy Sutherland, learned while writing a book on animal training. As she puts it:
The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

She describes three lessons in the article:

1) Instead of changing behavior through nagging (raising costs), raise the benefits associated with not doing the undesirable thing (e.g., kiss your partner for picking up their clothes -- a win-win for everyone)
2) Create incompatible behaviors which make engaging in the annoying task impossible (obviously this won't work in all situations, but in the article she describes creating tasks on the other side of the kitchen to occupy her husband in order to prevent him from crowding her while cooking).
3) Ignore stuff (Least Reinforcing Syndrome) -- "The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away."

Ultimately, all three of these strategies are themselves limited. The point, though, is to think creatively about how to deal with thoughtless or annoying partners. Nagging is natural and cheap, but can be destructive to the relationship. Try and figure out if there is an alternative response which might produce the desired outcome with lower long term costs on you and the relationship.

Comments:
Have you noticed how long this article has been at the top of the NYT Most Emailed List? It must be some kind of record. If we could just have data on who is sending it to whom. Do you think spouses are sending it to each other? Are friends sending it to friends about their spouses? Old vs. Young?

Most of us do not have enough BAW in us to come up with this stuff on our own. With any luck, Amy Sutherland's article will help the modern couple break down the walls that surround our abilities to think introspectively.
 
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