An Economist Thinking About Love

DESCRIPTIONBetsey Stevenson

Marketplace is continuing its series on “Econ Fun-01,” and they recently featured my favorite economist, Betsey Stevenson. I should give a bit more background. Betsey is also my co-author, and we’ve written a bunch of papers (and op-eds) together, taking the economic approach to understanding the family. As her sometimes co-author, I was pleased to hear of her coolly analytic approach:

Economists see markets at play everywhere. Even in your romantic life. Indeed, I’m one of the worst guests that you can invite to your wedding. Why? Because while most of your guests are listening for your love story, I’m listening for your contract. While others see a romantic courtship leading to the altar, I see people who are satisfied enough to stop searching for someone else.

But before continuing, I should also tell you that Betsey is my significant other. Indeed, we’ve been together over a decade, having met in grad school. And with that background, I’ll let her continue:

Searching for a spouse is very similar to searching for a job. There is not one perfect job for each of us, but there are clearly better and worse jobs. So we hunt, for a spouse and a job. When do we stop? When the offer in the hand is better than the likely offer in the bush.

At a wedding I see a relationship that is good enough to settle down and start investing in. If you get a reasonable rate of return, investment in your relationship will make it truly better than any other relationship you could have.

Betsey’s co-author agrees. Her romantic partner isn’t so sure. And both of us are pleased to hear that it turns out she’s a romantic after all:

As an economist I think that a good marriage, like a good employment relationship, emphasizes shared vision, common interests, complementary abilities, and gains from specialization.

Or I’m at least sort of pleased. Her piece is fun and well worth reading in full (or listening to, here).


"If you get a reasonable rate of return, investment in your relationship will make it truly better than any other relationship you could have."

What about the axiom of eggs and baskets?

Given the failure rate, isn't this also an argument for... uh... diversification?

Isn't it the case that most mothers would choose to save the life of their child before saving their husband? (Whereas most fathers would save their wives before their children...) The "pricing" in romantic relationships is most often asynchronous, the return rate highly variable, so one could also say with the same analogy that over-investment in any one relationship (i.e. dependency) is unwise. Presuming it a priori to be "truly better than any other relationship" will not necessarily make it so.

Indeed, can children and pets also be considered "relationship investments"?


When do we stop? When the offer in the hand is better than the likely offer in the bush.

I think this forgets to take into account the costs of searching and benifits of behing happy with some one.

For example, say there is someone very likely to make you a little bit more happy in the bush. But, lets say you're not sure how much longer you will have to continue searching for that person. To find them you will have ton incure X number of blind dates, you'd have to make certain cash outlays all in the atempt to find this person.

I think the economist would say you should stop looking, becuase of the added costs in looking.

Randy Mont-Reynaud, PhD

Indeed! And as my mentor, Margaret Mead wrote and noted, "Marriage is an economic institution for raising children." To which I add: Anything else (there occasionally is a something else) is gravy...


Best investment I ever made.


TG, I think your costs are included in the difference between "hand" and "bush" hence the expression to begin with.


Best investment I ever made.

-- comment of the day

What about the costs of desertion? Sometimes, to quit a job is not seen in bad light, and the monetary costs are more like losses of future paychecks.

A divorce can be very costly, especially if there are legal fees, alimony, etc. Plus, emotional suffering in some cases.


If you really want to take an economical look at the family, you should read Robert Trivers work about parental investment (1972), and parent-offspring conflict (1974).


The marginal utility of continuing the search for a life partner is no longer worth the cost incurred by it. I am willing to make an investment, both emotional and financial, in our relationship, so that we may maximize our social welfare function. I will promise not to hedge against this investment risk and hope we reach an equilibrium.

My question: are economists more likely to have spouses that are also economists than people in other fields?

Panem et Circanses

Finding a relationship is very, very like finding a job... especially for men. One exception - it's easier to find a relationship when you don't have one right then. As for marriage, more complex, but when the men proffer their credentials it's as economic, in both monetary and nonmonetary senses, as you can get.

Spanish school in Valencia

Nice post. Mother would definitely give preference to her child than her husband.


re: MikeM , I think your right , that the expression "one in the hand is better than two in the bush" does take into account the costs I was referring to. But this post , if I'm reading it correctly, says to keep looking until the one in the hand is better than one you might find in the bush.


When it comes to love, economists may be right, but English majors are sure a lot more fun to hang out with.


"When do we stop? When the offer in the hand is better than the likely offer in the bush."

For what it's worth, John Gilbert and Frederick Mosteller of Harvard University developed a solution for optimizing the results of the "marriage problem" - that is, deciding when to stop the search for some optimal candidate and settle down.

Admittedly, the problem is highly stylized: Imagine a game in which you want to pick the highest card out of a deck of cards. However, you can only look at one card at a time. If you elect to keep the card, the game ends. Or you can choose to discard your card forever and pick another card. You know how many cards are in the deck, but not the range of values on the cards. What's the optimal strategy?

Look at and discard the first X number of cards, where X = number of cards in deck divided by e, the base of the natural log, which is 2.71828.... In practice, this means looking through the first 37% of the cards. Thereafter you continue flipping through the cards, but keep the next card that proves to be higher than any of the prior cards (or keep the last card in the deck).

This strategy will find the highest card more than 36% of the time. That's still less than half. But love is an uncertain business even among quant jocks -- perhaps especially among quant jocks.


Eric M. Jones

The cost of not running a credit check on a potential mate can be enormous. Getting a report from a private detective is cheap too. Money well spent.


Re: Randy Mont Reynaud's comment about Margaret Mead's remark that marriage is an economic institution for raising children.

Maybe we should create a social institution that is specifically designed as such, but marriage as it exists in our culture, while often overlapping with child-rearing, is sold to the single as the logical sequel to romance, and "til death do us part" lasts far longer than child-rearing does. Also, consider how many people find their relationships with spouses suffer once children arrive. This might also explain our current 50% divorce rate & previous generations' rampant marital unhappiness.

But what do I know? I'm in a happy - and happily childless - marriage.

Andrew Leigh

An interesting research project, though there will of course be much noise in the data. For example, we chose our vows because they seemed particularly euphonious (I've always liked "till death do us part"). Perhaps B will need to restrict the sample to those with bespoke vows.


The difference between finding a job and finding a mate is that the latter involves massive doses of disorienting brain chemicals. This is how I explain my spectacularly poor choice of a mate (now former mate) but very good employment history.


Finding a mate is based a lot on speculative ability. Especially if you have a relatively high tolerance and like diversity, it may just be a pretty random choice from a somewhat selective grab bag.

Personally, testing a lot of samples is probably the best strategy. I do think that even with pretty optimal testing opportunities many people do settle on one person for serious relationship investment.

Many people marry with stricter ideologies or not so many opportunities. When either the ideology grows more flexible or the opportunities grow more existent. Things can very easily change.

Most people switch televisions if they make enough money to get a cooler television. However, having someone be your significant other costs a lot more than a television set.
With human sentiment being strong, addictive, and fragile, a person risks a lot more to get a new spouse. Possibly its comparable to trading up on a life support system or something which is clearly vital to one's current status as being alive and functioning.

I tend to think that its not so much a matter of sharing ideas, vision, or dreams. But rather a matching of preferences for living, i.e. lifestyle preferences. Not to mention that psychological and physiological attraction are really major. Tolerance becomes crucial.

Also, choices are not as vast as they might seem. Usually your spouse or significant other tolerates you better than most people would. Or is frequently the best person you can get with your individual and social resources and offerings.