The Economics of Sex

Sexual freedom and economic theory. What does it mean for men and women?

The Game Theory of Female Competition

Is competition for mates self-defeating?

A new book that is getting some buzz is called Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes by journalists Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, which applies basic economic principles—such as supply-and-demand and comparative advantage—to marriage. There is a substantial literature in economics on marriage and family, stemming from Nobel Laureate Gary Becker's groundbreaking work in the early 1970s (summarized in his book A Treatise on the Family), and Spousonomics tries to popularize some of that work (along the lines of books like Freakonomics).

Becker's work is actually what attracted me to economics early in my career, and only later did I lose interest in the field based on the neglect of ethical considerations in the literature. (I'll be sure to read Spousonomics before passing judgment, but assuming it follows in the tradition of other pop-economics books, my hopes are not high. UPDATE: After one of the authors blogged about the book, I had to comment.) But there are still valuable insights to be gleaned from basic economic principles applied to situations usually not regarded as economic in nature, especially marriage, family—and dating, which has been discussed very little in the economic literature on marriage. (Researchers there typically use a mathematical sorting algorithm to "arrange" marriages, which definitely would seem to take the fun of dating—though it does bear some resemblance to speed-dating!)

Take female competition for men, as discussed by fellow PT blogger Maryanne Fisher. She describes how women compete fiercely for the "few good men," putting enormous effort into their appearance, lowering their expectations, and actively denigrating other women, all to increase the chances of attracting and keeping a "good man" (broadly defined). The economist would look at this and see an example of the famous prisoners' dilemma from game theory, in which "players," acting in their own self-interest, actually hurt themselves in the process when they interact strategically.

The name comes from the story of two bank robbers who are caught and interrogated separately by the police. It would be best for both if they could both stay quiet, but each has incentive to confess, regardless of what the other does. For instance, call our robbers Bonnie and Clyde: if Bonnie thinks Clyde is going to keep quiet, she can cut a sweet deal by confessing (even better than if they both kept quiet), and if she thinks Clyde will talk, she'd better talk too so he doesn't sell her out. So while it is in each robber's self-interest to confess, it is in both their interests to keep quiet—hence the dilemma.

Prisoners' dilemma situations are very common in competitive situations: for instance, two companies in fierce competition with each other could both be better off if they both lightened up a bit (think price wars). But the problem is: Who's going to back down first? Both firms may realize the advantage of cooperation, but neither one wants to be the chump that backs down while the other takes advantage of them. The same principle applies to political campaigns ("I'll cut my spending once my rival does"), arms-reduction agreements (where nations want to make sure the other side is reducing their stockpile too), and many other competitive contexts—including female competition for mates.

Basically, as women spend more resources—money, time, and energy—in competition for the same number of good men, they're losing out collectively. For example, let's say (hypothetically) if that there are three women competing for one Good Man (TM). No matter how fiercely those three woman compete for that one man, the "prize" is the same: Him. All that extra effort doesn't increase the "pot"—it just wastes resources. Think of political campaigns: candidates may spend all they want, but only one can win. Each candidate wants to increase his or her chances of winning, but if all candidates do that, their efforts cancel out. Same thing with the competing women: they may each try harder, but if they all try harder, then it's a wash in the end. The man gets more attractive women to choose from, but the rewards to the women (as a whole) are the same: One guy. (Not mention he's a guy who learns he doesn't have to put forth effort himself to attract women, which may actually make the "prize" worse).

I think this rampant competition is what led to trends and books like Ellen Fien and Sherry Schneider's The Rules (remember that?) and Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty, which can be seen as ways for women to collectively put a stop to all the competition by giving them an incentive to counteract the self-defeating behavior that leads to the prisoners' dilemma outcome: women compete less, and the burden of attraction is shifted more to the men. But just as in traditional prisoners' dilemma examples from economics, this requires a collective effort, usually in the form of a binding agreement (such as an arms treaty) or an externally imposed one (such as campaign finance limitations), neither of which are simple to obtain.

So if there's no collective solution, what can individual women do to avoid falling into a prisoners' dilemma? As a man who's never been competed over in his life, personally I would recommend they broaden their view of what a "good man" is. Try to find the "diamond in the rough" whom other woman may not notice and may not go after as much. Or, maybe try to compete in different ways, ways that make you stand out without requiring as much effort: wear pants when other women are wearing skirts, wear glasses if no other women are, or go to places where they are less women relative to men.

In other words, rather than compete by other women's rules, play by your own—and maybe men will find themselves in the prisoners' dilemma for a change.

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You can follow me on Twitter and also at the Economics and Ethics blog and The Comics Professor blog—no need for competiton, there's room for everyone.

The Economics of Sex