Thursday, April 10, 2003

The Rational Romantic

When I started this blog, I decided to keep it sharply focused on economics, politics, law, language, philosophy… well, pretty much anything, really. But I ruled out anything highly personal. This is a public journal, not a private diary. Here is my pledge to you, dear reader: no specific accounts of my loves and loves lost, sexual exploits, family disputes, etc. If you want to hear that stuff, you’ll have to go drinking with me.

But my embargo on gory details needn’t prevent me from *theorizing* about the economics and philosophy of everyday life. We academic types are quite happy to discuss our personal lives in the abstract, you see. And today, this L.A. Times article got me thinking about the economic theory of romance. Mark Miller, the article’s author, must be an economist at heart, because he thinks about this just the way I do:
So when it comes to the qualities we want in a soul mate, how many of them are enough? If she has 75% of my desired attributes, should that be sufficient? Or would I feel that I'm settling and wonder if someone with 89% would have been just around the corner and much more satisfying? And if she was, would I truly be happy with her, when someone with 97% might have come along a month or two down the line? … Clearly, no one person is going to have all the traits I'd ideally like my soul mate to possess. So, what am I willing to do without?
Dedicated readers – meaning the ones who actually read my longest and most esoteric posts – may recall that I said something similar in my discussion of the rationality of satisficing behavior:
For instance, a satisficing dater might stick with a girlfriend who is not ideal but who meets certain minimum requirements for looks, personality, and so on. However, satisficing turns out to be an instance of maximizing behavior in the context of a dynamic search. When it is costly to search for something – say, a new mate, or a lower price on a product, or a job with a higher wage – you have to weigh the cost of searching further against the expected gains from finding something better than the status quo (as well as the distinct possibility of ending up with something worse than the status quo). It’s a standard result from search theory that a rational person facing these conditions will adopt a reservation level of satisfaction (quality of mate, price of product, wage of job) and stick with any outcome at least that good. In other words, he will engage in satisficing behavior.
So Miller and I seem to be pretty much on the same page. In the last couple of paragraphs, he conjures a starry-eyed moral to the story: “And one of the things I've learned is that when you're in a truly loving relationship, your partner's flaws are minimized and positive qualities maximized. Which is a really nice thing to happen, because it sends you deeper into love with them.” True, but don’t forget: that should only happen when you’ve found someone who exceeds your reservation level of romantic satisfaction.

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