Wednesday, February 14, 2007

An Economist's Love Letter

Seems like I should have something to say about Valentine’s Day, so here are some scattered thoughts.

The cynic in me says Valentine’s Day, at least in its modern form, is simply a marketing ploy of the greeting card and candy companies. Of course, it’s hard for a single person to make this claim without being accused of sour grapes. Then again, it’s the people in relationships who provide most of the greeting card companies’ profits, so the single people shouldn’t mind as much. It’s the couples that should be complaining.

Other holidays solve a coordination problem: people like to celebrate at the same time as their friends and families, and holidays conveniently provide focal points. However, as I’ve argued before, holidays also create coordination problems by crowding the roads, filling restaurants over capacity, etc. In general, I think the benefits of solving the former coordination problem outweigh the costs of the latter. Valentine’s Day, however, is the quintessential two-person-only holiday, so there’s no reason to want everyone to do it on the same day. It would be much better if each couple celebrated its own personal Valentine’s on a random day (excluding other holidays) uncorrelated with anyone else’s; this would reduce the crowding in romantic restaurants and similar venues, making everyone’s romantic evening a bit more pleasant. This would have the ancillary benefit of not making the unattached feel lousy at the sight of so many happy couples.

And there’s no particular reason rational people couldn’t do it that way. In fact, I know that some couples agree to ignore Valentine’s Day and have their own celebration on another day (though usually sometime in February). But perhaps behavioral economics can provide a better justification for Valentine’s Day. In a healthy relationship, it’s a good idea for the couple to devote at least a few days of each year to celebrating their togetherness, bla bla bla. (Not being cynical there, just trying to skip past the part we all understand.) The problem is that if there’s no specific date – no deadline – then it’s easy to procrastinate in the face of obligations from work, school, etc., and as a result too little time gets devoted solely to relationship maintenance. People subject to this time-inconsistency problem can benefit from imposing a rule on themselves, or having one socially imposed for them, that requires that at least one specific day each year be devoted to the relationship. It’s an imperfect solution, but possibly better than alternative.

2 comments:

c said...

And there’s no particular reason rational people couldn’t do it that way. In fact, I know that some couples agree to ignore Valentine’s Day and have their own celebration on another day (though usually sometime in February).

Isn't this what we usually do on "anniversaries?" I know that those are mainly for married people but if the relationship is chugging along at 3 years, doesn't that warrant celebration? (And if it's going that well, aren't you going to remember when it started?

Glen Whitman said...

True, but if you're only having one relationship-day per year, you're gonna be in big trouble.