Sunday, April 26, 2009

From the Archive: Outside the Fairy Tale

Growing up, I am certain all of you encountered, and perhaps embraced, the notion of fairy tale romance. This view posits the existence of some perfect mate who we are destined to meet and live with happily ever after.

That is, one can find love without costs. Somewhere out there a perfect match awaits us -- someone who is a far better match than any alternatives (i.e., the relationship product from pairing you with this person far exceeds the relationship product from any other possible pairing). Further, this person is so perfect that you will never have to engage in costly bargaining (because they have no traits you find annoying or vice versa and you agree completely on who should do what and how things should be allocated). Finally, you WILL meet this person (there are no search costs). You need only keep an eye out and overcome the few obstacles that stand in the way.

There is a reason we describe such romance as a fairy tale. Real love comes with a variety of costs -- search costs, forgone opportunities, bargaining costs. The importance we assign to these costs plays an enormous role in determining how we date and marry.

Some people believe strongly that a Mr. or Ms. Right exists and can be found with appropriate searching . Such people essentially assume that partnering with the "wrong" person imposes large costs because they forego the option of pairing with someone substantially better (more productive) and staying with the wrong person requires lots of extra bargaining and negotiation.

This approach to dating makes sense if one believes that people are very complicated and very hard to change. Under these assumptions, pairing with the "wrong" person substantially lowers an individual's welfare. As such, it makes sense to incur large search costs (date alot) in order to find the "ideal" mate. Further, we want to make dissolving imperfect matches fairly easy because resolving incompatibilities whenever they are found may be extremely costly.

The alternative view assumes people are relatively simple and capable of change. As such, relationship success hinges not on finding Mr. or Ms. Right, but rather it hinges on people having the right attitude and being able to figure out how to make things work. Under this view, searching wastes of energy and awareness that someone better exists only makes it more difficult to come to terms with what is, in fact, a good relationship.

The extreme version of this approach is arranged marriage. In arranged marriages two relative strangers are paired off and essentially told to "make it work." Many do, although it is important to note that such success does not indicate that imperfect matches and bargaining costs are irrelevant. Indeed, such "make it work" approaches to relationships are typically accompanied by large barriers to divorce and strong gender norms which govern the relationship. This suggests that people need to be pushed in order to "make it work."

So which assumptions are correct? Which approach to dating produces the best outcome for individuals? for society?

I don't know. Part of me worries that people make themselves worse off by consistently worrying about if there might be someone better available, and worse, people quit otherwise successful relationships because they view it as cheap (don't have to incur bargaining costs and a better match exists). If people overestimate the cost of bargaining with their partner or their chances of finding someone substantially better, then people might be made better off in the long run if we made it more difficult for them to break-up. On the other hand, if most people don't make these mistakes regularly, then making it more difficult to break-up only forces many people to stay in bad relationships longer then is necessary (imposing a big loss on social welfare).

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