Behavioral economics doesn’t seem to have much to say about marriage

This was just bizarre. It’s an interview with Colin Camerer, a professor of finance and economics at Caltech, The topic is Camerer’s marriage, but what’s weird is that he doesn’t say anything specific about his wife at all. All we get are witticisms of the sub-Henny-Youngman level, for example, in response to the question, “Any free riding in your household?”, Camerer says:

No. Here’s why: I am one of the world’s leading experts on psychology, the brain and strategic game theory. But my wife is a woman. So it’s a tie.

Also some schoolyard evolutionary biology (“men signaling that they will help you raise your baby after conception, and women signaling fidelity” blah blah blah) and advice for husbands in “upper-class marriages with assets.” (No advice to the wives, but maybe that’s a good thing.) And here are his insights on love and marriage:

Marriage is like hot slow-burning embers compared to the flashy flames of love. After the babies, the married brain has better things to do–micromanage, focus on those babies, create comfort zones. Marriage love can then burrow deeper, to the marrow.

To the marrow, eh? And what about couples who have no kids? Then maybe you’re burrowing through the skin and just to the surface of the bone, I guess.

It seems like a wasted opportunity, really: this dude could’ve shared insights from his research and discussed its applicability (or the limitations of its applicability) to love, a topic that everybody cares about. (In contrast, another interview in this Economists in Love series, by Daniel Hamermesh, was much more to the point.)

Yeah, sure, I’m a killjoy, the interview is just supposed to be fluff, etc. Still, what kind of message are you sending when you define yourself as “one of the world’s leading experts on psychology” and define your wife as “a woman”? Yes, I realize it’s supposed to be self-deprecating, but to me it comes off as self-deprecating along the lines of, “Yeah, my cat’s much smarter than I am. She gets me to do whatever she wants. Whenever she cries out, I give her food.”

I’m not talking about political correctness here. I’m more worried about the hidden assumptions that can sap one’s research, as well as the ways in which subtle and interesting ideas in psychology can become entangled with various not-so-subtle, not-so-well-thought-out ideas on sex roles etc.

I’m being completely unfair to Camerer

I have no idea how this interview was conducted but it could well have been done over the phone in ten minutes. Basically, Camerer is a nice guy and when these reporters called him up to ask him some questions, he said, Sure, why not. And then he said whatever came to his mind. If I were interviewed without preparation and allowed to ramble, I’d say all sorts of foolish things too. So basically I’m slamming Camerer for being nice enough to answer a phone call and then having the misfortune to see has casual thoughts spread all over the web (thanks to a link from Tyler Cowen, who really should’ve known better). So I take it all back.

P.S. Camerer’s webpage mentions that he received his Ph.D. in 1981 at the age of 22. Woudn’t it be more usual to simply give your birth year (1958 or 1959, in this case)? Perhaps it’s some principle of behavioral economics, that if people have to do the subtraction they’ll value the answer a bit more.

8 thoughts on “Behavioral economics doesn’t seem to have much to say about marriage

  1. I took undergraduate evo. psych from Camerer and acquired a hearty distate for the way the topic was presented. I don’t think you’re being very unfair at all.

  2. It doesn't take one of the "world's leading experts"
    to psychoanalyze the following:

    I am one of the world's leading experts on psychology, the brain and strategic game theory.

    Add in the gratuitous gender-typing about women's purported superiority in interpersonal relationships (though I have no doubt an average woman's, or man's for that matter, insights into psychology are the equal of Camerer) and one makes the not-too-difficult inference that this guy has an inflated opinion of

    The only other point I might make for statisticians is that most game theory violates expected utility theory.

  3. I don't think sharing intimate facts is a good idea but Andrew is right, Camerer could have shared a lot of knowledge coming from his experience without the need to name any patients. For example "Wives-to-be are often evaluating the debt of the person they intend to marry and a very substantial part of the final decision will depend on the state of that debt" is something which can help people understand the psychology behind an answer they received and I didn't have to name anyone in order to pass this valuable statement.

  4. Camerer wanted to emphasize that he received his PhD at a young age of 22. If he gave his birth year, people would have to do a substation involving two four-digit numbers, which we know some people won't bother to do without a calculator.

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