Reading the work of Dan Ariely, a Psychology professor at Duke who prefers the sexy job description of Behavioral Economist, I’m often struck by how frequently he explores human behavior in the context of dating and relationships. This approach has become so common among researchers that it has spawned the term Sexual Economics. Personally, I’ve always found economic concepts very applicable to sex and dating.
In his fascinating book Predictably Irrational, Ariely demonstrates the fallacy of Supply and Demand. The traditional view is that the price of something is determined where supply and demand intersect. Using sex as an example, historically in the U.S. the price of sex was marriage, or at least an engagement. (It is believed that up to 50% of the Pilgrims had intercourse before officially marrying.) Social norms dictated this price, and women withheld easy access to sex until they secured commitment. From the male point of view, the price of sex was high, requiring a lifelong pledge of love and fidelity.
After the Sexual Revolution, those norms rapidly broke down until we arrived at today’s price, usually some variation of sex after date #3 and/or the male’s expression of willingness to be exclusive, at least for now. As the price of sex has plummeted in our society, the price of commitment has risen. In a study by the National Marriage Project at UVA on why men are delaying marriage, the #1 reason given by respondents was:
“I can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past.”
However, the relationship between supply and demand is not entirely independent. According to Ariely, buyers can often be manipulated because they do not have a good understanding of their own preferences and the corresponding prices they are willing to pay. In the world of consumer goods, MSRPs, advertising, and sales promotions all influence the consumer’s willingness to pay. These are supply-side variables.
In the sexual marketplace, women (the sellers of sex) can manipulate prices on an individual basis. They have a range of “sales tactics” they employ, e.g:
- Delaying sex to drive up the price.
- Charging a “luxury goods” price if the female is especially attractive.
- Sweetening the deal via emotional escalation.
- Indicating a willingness to forego other opportunities via fidelity.
On the demand side, Ariely describes something called “arbitrary coherence.” Rather than being primarily motivated by real preference, which is what we should expect, buyers often make their decisions based on memory instead. This is not surprising – we are all conditioned by our past experiences. We have gotten used to doing things a certain way, and have established expectations. We seek coherence with past decisions each time we make a new one. That’s true for relationships as well.
Just as women may influence the sell side, men may influence the buy side by cohering with previous decisions, e.g:
- Expecting sex in the timeframe he previously experienced it.
- Changing the requirements for commitment based on the behavior of a previous partner, i.e. price discrimination.
- Continuing to pursue short-term flings or ONSs even when they are not enjoyable.
- Viewing the exchange as devoid of emotional investment.
Obviously, previous experiences may have a profound effect even if they have nothing to do with our true preferences today. The guy who foregoes a great girlfriend prospect and the girl who hooks up to be cool are making choices that are not necessarily an accurate reflection of real pleasure or utility.
Ariely suggests the importance of becoming aware of our own vulnerabilities. Question your repeated behaviors and decisions. How did you establish this preference? Does it still make sense? How much pleasure are you getting out of it?
We are not very rational beings by nature, but we can make better choices by considering more carefully what it is we really want, and what we are willing to sacrifice in order to get it.