Freakonomics Radio Gets Results

It's nice to have a podcast that is popular, but it's another thing to have a podcast that actually changes the world. Can you guess which of our recent episodes changed the world? Maybe the one about pedestrians getting run over? Or the one about blood avocados? Nope. Here's an e-mail from Mandi Grzelak, a listener in Cincinnati:

True story: while listening to your Feb. 6 podcast "What You Don't Know About Online Dating," I thought to myself, "I should try online dating!" After all, if NPR employees are on sites like OKCupid, I might have a shot with one! How amazing would that be?!

Long story short: I signed up that afternoon, started with some e-mails and went on my first date (from the site, not ever) on Feb. 10. Tim and I have been inseparable ever since, bring each other endless amounts of happiness, and last night he proposed. I, obviously, said yes. We plan to elope in NYC this August, to avoid a large dramatic wedding. But you and your families are welcome to join us.

Old-Fashioned Matchmaking as an Antidote to Modern Dating Dilemmas

We recently put out four Freakonomics Radio episodes that developed an arc of a theme: "Reasons to Not Be Ugly," "What You Don't Know About Online Dating," "Why Marry? (Part 1)" and "Why Marry? (Part 2)." These episodes prompted a lot of interesting listener/reader replies. Here is a particularly interesting one, from a woman we'll call R.:

I recently listened to your podcast on online dating and found it fascinating -- not so much because of the economics of dating, but more how it contrasted and compared with the economics of the dating world I live in: the Orthodox Jewish semi-arranged marriages.

I grew up in upstate New York, in a village that is almost only Haredi Orthodox. The world I live in is sort of like Jane Austen, very marriage-oriented. Every girl (and boy for that matter) wants to get married, and does so in her early twenties. The systems at play to get everyone married off must fascinate an outsider. Out of my class of about sixty, about 95% got married within the first five years out of school. So far, only one girl is divorced. It's hard to quantify happiness in all these marriages but from what my friends tend to tell me, most seem very happy in their relationships. I know that the Orthodox Union has done research into the area. They collected a lot of data by surveying thousands of Orthodox couples, including Haredim, with in-depth online questionnaires. While I have not examined their data (and what a treasure trove that must be to an economist!) I think that this success in matching quickly, efficiently, and happily is due to changing the incentives you talk about in your podcast. The entire process seems to have been designed to reduce outer beauty from being the main incentive in a marriage market.

How the New Model of Marriage May Drive Income Inequality

Our last two podcasts, "Why Marry?" (Part 1 and Part 2) explored the broad and deep changes in the institution of marriage. One theme was that the old marriage model of "production complementaries" has shifted to one based on "consumption complementarities." Here's Justin Wolfers on the subject:

We have more time, more money, and so you want to spend it with someone that you’ll enjoy. So, similar interests and passions. We call this the model of hedonic marriage. But really it’s a lot more familiar than that. This is just economists giving a jargon name to love. So you want someone who’s actually remarkably similar to you or has similar passions that you do. So it fundamentally changes who marries who.

But is this change also related to income inequality? Wolfers briefly referenced that idea a few years back; in a recent article for Vox, the economics Jeremy Greenwood, Nezih Guner, Georgi Kocharkov, and Cezar Santos further the argument:

Happiness and Marriage

Last week's podcast was "Why Marry, Part 1"; Part 2 will be released tomorrow (well, we usually release new episodes around midnight, so depending on where you live, Part 2 may be released today.) In Part 1, Justin Wolfers explained how marriage has shifted from a model of “production complementarities” to a model of hedonic marriage. Psychology professor Eli J. Finkel writes in The New York Times that we're also in an age of "all-or-nothing" marriages -- where expectations of happiness in marriage are high:

Consider, for example, that while the divorce rate has settled since the early 1980s at around 45 percent, even those marriages that have remained intact have generally become less satisfying. At the same time, consider the findings of a recent analysis, led by the University of Missouri researcher Christine M. Proulx, of 14 longitudinal studies between 1979 and 2002 that concerned marital quality and personal well-being. In addition to showing that marital quality uniformly predicts better personal well-being (unsurprisingly, happier marriages make happier people), the analysis revealed that this effect has become much stronger over time. The gap between the benefits of good and mediocre marriages has increased.

Should Marriage Be More Like an Employment Contract?

A reader named J.D. Peralta is asking for your help:

For about the last six years I have developing a theory about how marriage should be legal social contracts.  I feel that legal marriage (not marriage by the church) should be treated more like employment agreements. These "marriage contracts" should bring with them a term that ranges from 3-5 years. The term of the contracts will be developed by both parties but I feel that they should include things like expectation, key areas of responsibilities, etc.

I have been working on this in my spare time but I am currently taking a management class for my bachelor's degree and I have the opportunity to really put some muscle behind this theory. That is where I need your help. I have been researching this topic for the last two weeks but I have found very little data that could be considered as legitimate sources to support my argument.  I am hoping that you can point me to some reference that help me to complete my argument.  Any assistance you can provided me would be greatly appreciated.

A bit more about Peralta. He is 32, works as an accountant for a public accounting firm in Los Angeles, was born in El Salvador but has lived in the U.S. since 1986. His parents have been married for 39 years; he has two older brothers. "In case you are curious I do have a girlfriend," he writes, "and we have been together for almost 5 years. I have discussed my theory with her and she finds the concept reasonable."

Why Are the Japanese No Longer Interested in Sex?

From the Guardian:

Japan's under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren't even dating, and increasing numbers can't be bothered with sex. For their government, "celibacy syndrome" is part of a looming national catastrophe. Japan already has one of the world's lowest birth rates. Its population of 126 million, which has been shrinking for the past decade, is projected to plunge a further one-third by 2060.


The number of single people has reached a record high. A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact." More than a quarter of men felt the same way.

 The article contains a number of speculations as to cause, well worth reading. At least the Malthusians will be happy.

Want to Quit Smoking? Get Your Spouse to Do It First

Smoking is one of our favorite topics on this blog -- from the ethics of not hiring smokers to the use of commitment devices to quit. A new NBER paper (gated) by Kerry Anne McGeary looks at smoking in marriages. It finds that one spouse quitting causes the other to quit, through bargaining:

Previous research studying the correlation in smoking behavior between spouses has discounted the role of bargaining or learning. Using the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which contains information on smoking cessation and spouse’s preferences, this paper presents an essential investigation of the importance of spousal bargaining or learning on the decision to cease smoking. We find, regardless of gender, when one member of [a] couple ceases smoking this induces the other member to cease smoking through bargaining. Further, we find females demonstrate either altruistic behavior toward a spouse, who has suffered a health shock, or learning from their spouse’s health shock.

Couples Who Meet Online Have Better Marriages

A new study by the University of Chicago's John Cacioppo finds that couples who met online went on to have more fulfilling marriages than those who met offline. They also divorced at a lower percentage:

“These data suggest that the Internet may be altering the dynamics and outcomes of marriage itself,” said the study’s lead author, John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

The results were published in the paper, "Marital Satisfaction and Breakups Differ Across Online and Offline Meeting Venues,” in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Meeting online has become an increasingly common way to find a partner, with opportunities arising through social networks, exchanges of email, instant messages, multi-player games and virtual worlds, in which people "live" on the site through avatars. The research shows that couples who met online were more likely to have higher marital satisfaction and lower rates of marital breakups than relationships that began in face-to-face meetings.

When a Wife Earns More

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica looks at gender identity and its affect on household income. Their findings will depress anyone concerned with gender equality. Here's the abstract:

We examine causes and consequences of relative income within households. We establish that gender identity – in particular, an aversion to the wife earning more than the husband - impacts marriage formation, the wife's labor force participation, the wife's income conditional on working, marriage satisfaction, likelihood of divorce, and the division of home production. The distribution of the share of household income earned by the wife exhibits a sharp cliff at 0.5, which suggests that a couple is less willing to match if her income exceeds his. Within marriage markets, when a randomly chosen woman becomes more likely to earn more than a randomly chosen man, marriage rates decline. Within couples, if the wife's potential income (based on her demographics) is likely to exceed the husband's, the wife is less likely to be in the labor force and earns less than her potential if she does work. Couples where the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce. Finally, based on time use surveys, the gender gap in non-market work is larger if the wife earns more than the husband.

A Marriage Proposal

Spotted on a street corner in Chelsea (New York):