One individual wrote an economic or “game-theoretic” analysis of whether to leave the toilet seat open or closed. He used complicated mathematical formulas to conclude that economizing hand motions is the key variable. In his account, we should leave the toilet seat “as is” when done. Why bother switching when the seat might be needed in the same position again, and you’ll just have to switch back?I’d be flattering myself to assume he’s talking about me, since I’m hardly the first to apply math and econ to the toilet seat issue (indeed, my posts were all inspired by others’ analyses). But I have taken the position in question, which Tyler indicts as ignoring the signaling function of the always-down norm:
A more sophisticated approach, based on a longer chat with one’s Inner Economist, would recognize that such matters should be arranged to please one’s wife, and that usually means putting the seat down after use. It is a symbolic recognition of her value.There is something to be said for keeping peace in the household by making small sacrifices. If the women in our lives really think toilet-seat-down is that big a deal, then a wasteful extra hand motion is a small price to pay for domestic tranquility. And if it seems like I think it’s a big deal, that’s only because I get a perverse joy from blogging about the economics of everyday things (in my real life, I generally capitulate to the always-down norm).
The economic idea of “signaling” refers to sending a message by choosing a costly action. I signal when I buy my wife flowers on Valentine’s Day; I am not convinced she needs the blossoms in mid-February. I am sorry to say this to all you cheapskates out there, but the cost of signaling is the entire point. A fancy diamond ring goes further than flowers. ... Such gifts show we value the gift receiver, even if diamonds really are a waste of money.
That said, I don’t think Tyler’s signaling theory of toilet-seat norms really works. As Tyler notes, the whole point of signaling is to incur a notable cost. The costly signal helps to distinguish two different groups of people by requiring a sacrifice that only one group will make. Thus, higher education is a signal of high productivity because education is costly enough (in terms of effort) that low-productivity people will find it too costly to acquire. If education is too simple – say, because grade inflation makes it possible for everyone to get a degree – then it fails to perform a separating function. Now, apply this to toilet seat positions. In truth, the act of shifting the seat is very low cost, regardless of who does it. (It’s nevertheless true that change-when-necessary is the efficient norm, because it makes the already-low costs lower still.) It’s hard for me to believe that such a simple activity will really distinguish between caring and uncaring partners, because the signal is too easily faked by the uncaring.
In addition, while signaling games are often inefficient (at least if we ignore the value of the signal), some are more inefficient than others. The best signals are ones that, in addition to conveying information, also provide benefits or services that would otherwise be neglected or underprovided. Take the case of charitable giving. For many donors, charitable giving is about signaling to other people: “I am generous, I am caring, I am trustworthy.” But since the giving usually takes the form of a transfer of wealth, there is little deadweight loss, and value is transferred to people who really need it. A major theme of Tyler’s book is that there are many things we can do to improve the efficacy of our charitable giving. Most of the changes he recommends would produce greater external benefits without substantially reducing the strength of our signals.
Why, then, should we defend a clearly wasteful toilet-seat norm as a means of signaling caring to our partners, especially when less inefficient signals – with greater signal strength – are readily available? As I’ve suggested before, couples could bargain their way to the efficient toilet-seat norm via an agreement by men to give more frequent gifts and foot rubs.
Incidentally, we should note that both parties in a relationship need to send signals to each other. Given that both men and women benefit from having their preferred toilet seat norm, why should this particular signal pass from men to women, instead of the reverse? If we’re going to advocate inefficient norms as signals, why shouldn’t women signal caring to the men in their lives by always putting the seat up? (This would be even more inefficient than always-down; but since p[#1] > p[#2], it would still be appreciated by men.) I’m not actually advocating this, but the possibility should give us pause. Why aren’t women willing to send that signal? Might it have something to do with its inefficiency, especially relative to other ways they show us they care?