Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Study economics, save marriage!

Not quite exactly, but it  helps to reach Pareto efficiency. Here is an interesting piece by Paula Szuchman in Newsweek.

To prove a point after a nasty argument—kitchen cabinets were again left open, words were exchanged—my husband sketched a graph plotting the recent state of our marriage. His point was that we were having more bad days than good, and that something was needed to remedy this. But his chart got me thinking: maybe I was actually looking at the remedy. Maybe the solution to our marital strife wasn’t to be found on the therapist’s couch, but in the hard language of empirical data.

As a business-news editor, I was already mired in news about housing bubbles, market noise, and incentives—which, oddly, seemed to have parallels at home. My relationship bubble had burst not long after I said “I do.” Were we insufficiently compatible—or just reacting to screwed-up incentives?

[…]One key area is incentives, the things that motivate people. Mortgage deductions spur home purchases; salaries entice people to work. My husband’s incentive to close cabinets—avoid nagging—wasn’t exactly “perverse,” but it was backfiring. Turns out, there are better incentives. One is trust, which economists have found can be surprisingly motivating. In one example, people were more likely to donate blood if they weren’t paid than if they were. Who knew?

So I tried having a little faith in my guy. I stopped nagging. And one day I came home to find CLOSE ME signs taped inside our cabinets as reminders to himself.

Another lesson: 50/50 isn’t the best way to divide housework. We want an egalitarian marriage (and anything else would betray the feminist principles my mother taught me). But Adam Smith famously noted that efficiency is maximized when workers specialize. Today, I gladly pay all the bills, and my husband—mostly gladly—does all the sweeping and mopping.