So, I’m sure most of you have read some of those awful, “dating is a transaction” articles like this one that Cliff Pervocracy addressed a while back. If you haven’t seen one of these yet, here is a sample of this one:
Women are jumping into the sack faster and with fewer expectations about long-term commitments than ever, effectively discounting the “price” of sex to a record low, according to social psychologists…researchers have found that men are literally getting lots of bang for their buck. Women, meanwhile, are getting very little tat for their . . . well, you get the idea.
Indeed, I do “get the idea,” and it certainly isn’t the first time I’ve heard it floated. Lot’s of pop psychologists love to push the idea that love is really a transaction where men get sex and women get relationships. They love to pretend that they are just giving us the hard facts doled out by science while pretty openly implying that all sex is some kind of weird, prostitution-like business agreement. As entertaining as it is to read these little rants let’s talk real economics for a moment. I am sure most of you have at least seen a graph of supply and demand:
and if you know what it represents, you can probably make the same connection that the New York Post made in the above quote. Basically, some people want a relationship more and some want it less; those who want it more pay a price for it by jumping through hoops: asking people out, buying drinks or flowers, romance etc. Great. I’ll buy that for now, but here’s the rub: that’s about the only evidence there is that relationships fit into a price oriented model. All it really tells us is that sometimes people will do stuff they wouldn’t otherwise do to connect with people. Furthermore, a pricing model can pretty much be applied to anything (if you are really determined to use it), but that doesn’t mean it will generate useful information. What exactly are we getting out of it? Some people are cheap and others are expensive?
So, let’s try a different economic model: maybe, I don’t know, a production model with only one unit of output (this means that both parties will stop producing once they have one unit of relationship, making the relationship is monogamous (though you don’t have to)) with respect to the typical marginal utility variable set.
max Relationship Profit (RP)* = Marginal benefit of first relationship (MBFR) – Marginal cost of relationship (MCFR)
If RP < 0 then Units = 0 Relationships else Units = 1
*Note that (RP) in this model is the cumulative relationship happiness of both people, we will discuss tweaks to the basic model at the end.
And to think I chose that at random…
This means that two people will put inputs into a system as costs (time, money, condoms, conversation, pants etc.) in order to product a relationship with certain benefits (companionship, love, sex, a basement to build a meth lab in, etc.). If the “profit” (in happiness) from that relationship is not positive (or not positive enough when we are dealing with nonzero thresholds), they will not have that relationship. Let’s examine some of the benefits.
First of all, it eliminates the confusing element of currency. If people are “paying” for relationships then we need to have some idea of what they are paying with. Some things, like alcohol and concert tickets, translate well into money or other quantities but other things like good conversational skills don’t (what is a unit of conversation?). We could create some kind of relational model between social skills and pay on the corporate ladder, or we could use the factor input model and come up with a more elegant solution. If we look at good conversation as a limiting factor on marginal costs and a boon to marginal benefits, then we get a much smoother model. Good conversational skills mean that conversations in the relationship are easier and more fun leading to more relationship profit. When models start naturally producing obvious, true answers this is a good sign (sometimes).
Another big benefit of our model is that it differentiates between factor inputs. For example, if you are trying to make a sword, you can pay as much as you like for your materials, but if you are using the wrong expensive materials you will not be able to make your product (i.e. expensive copper will make a worse sword than cheap steel). In relationship models based around price, you will often get problems of transitivity. In other words, it’s very common for the following situation to occur:
A woman will have sex for $100,000 or five minutes of good conversation, but she would never pay $100,000 for five minutes of good conversation. For products that work well with pricing model, this doesn’t happen (usually). Most people who value oranges at about $1 and apples at about $1 could be persuaded to trade an apple for an orange or vice versa. In other words, they will trade things of similar value (to them) fairly easily. In the production model conversation and $100,000 are radically different inputs, one of which will result in a positive MBFR and one of which will not. This eliminates the confusion created when relationships form around “lower priced” actions that are just more conducive to a good relationship.
The third concern is a more holistic critique of each model. Basically, the production model talks about relationships in a more neutral way. It says things like, “people would like relationships that make them happier. The way to produce a better relationship is with better inputs. The wrong kinds of actions, regardless of price, will result in negative consequences to the product. People won’t date when they see no benefit to it.” The pricing model says things like, “Some women are cheaper than other women. Sex can be bought for a price. There is a limited supply of human relationships and men compete for them. Women are sellers and men are buyers. Ugly women are cheap.” Mostly, the pricing model is used to support an agenda:
[From the NY Post article]
“Every sex act is part of a ‘pricing’ of sex for subsequent relationships,” Regnerus said. “If sex has been very easy to get for a particular young man for many years and over the course of multiple relationships, what would eventually prompt him to pay a lot for it in the future — that is, committing to marry?”
Did you answer, “Love”? You’re adorable.
…that is men want sex and nothing else, women are the cruel gatekeepers to sexual pleasure and women who have a lot of sex are cheap sluts who will end up alone when men finally decide to give up and marry. Many people peddle this nonsense as hard truth and use a butchered pricing model to support it. In the production model, people are not less valuable, but they may not bring the right materials to the table for that particular relationship product. It is easy to pick out behaviors or traits that will float or sink relationships without casting aspersions on the value of a person. Remember, copper is valuable but has limited uses.
So, let’s get to some variations of the model here to keep my critics happy:
You might notice that the relationship model only takes joint happiness into account, but it is easy to tweak the model to create a more selfish perspective for the cynics out there.
max RP1 = MBFR1 – MCFR1
max RP2 = MBFR2 – MCFR2
If RP 1 < 0 or RP2 < 0 then Units = 0 else Units = 1
Also we could factor in some transactional cost so that if RP > Threshold > 0 then Units = 1
While altruism can fit into this model, I prefer a middle-ground model between the communal and individualist equations.
max RPtotal = MBFRtotal – MCFRtotal
If RP1 = MBFR1 – MCFR1 > c1, RP2 = MBFR2 – MCFR2 > c2 and |c1 – c2| < cdiff then Units = 1 else Units = 0
where c1, c2 and cdiff are thresholds greater than 0.
Basically this model states that people in a relationship will try to maximize total happiness in an altruistic fashion as long as their own satisfaction remains above certain thresholds (c1, c2) and as long as they are not getting a raw deal, i.e. c1 is not too much greater than c2 or vice versa (cdiff can be scaled by some factor of RPtotal too for a more realistic model, I think).
Now, whether or not you understood this particular analysis, I hope one thing is more clear to you: just because you are calculating does not mean you have to be cold. There is a model (mathematical or otherwise) for just about anything you want to discuss. You can support just about any model of the world that you want with data, because the world is complicated and difficult to comprehend. If someone comes to you with figures and tries to tell you something outrageous like, “all women are prostitutes in an objective sense,” then you should understand that he, and not the system he is using, has painted that picture. That’s how he sees the world and there is nothing objective about his analysis. Models are useless unless they speak to some kind of deeper truth about the world.