Monday, October 22, 2007

Exchange theory and romance

Romantic love is the thing of poets, songwriters, college students text-messaging and… sociologists. One way that sociologists explain love is from the perspective of exchange theory. According to this theory, people think about relationships in terms of the various benefits and costs available to them, and they chose the relationships with the most benefits.

Think about the relationships that you’ve been in. What are some of the j0422305 benefits that you received? They can make you feel loved and special. It’s fun to have somebody to do things with—you feel less lonely. They can also offer sexual gratification.

What are some of the costs? They can take a ton of time and money, even when you don’t have much of either. They can be full of conflict. They can produce a lot of anxiety, and there’s the always-present threat of rejection.

Once we have become aware of these benefits and costs, how do we use them to figure out what to do? Two decision-making standards have been proposed. The first is called comparison level. We figure out what we have to gain from a relationship and then we compare it to what we have had in the past. If the potential relationship is better than our previous ones were, we go for it. If it’s not, we don’t. The idea here is that we want something better than we’ve had before.

The other decision-making standard is comparison level of alternatives. We evaluate a current or future relationship not against past relationships but against other options that we think are available to us. The operating principle here is “can you do better?” Should you get involved with a particular person? Well, it depends on your other options.

These decision standards apply to both getting into a new relationship and to staying in an existing relationship. Should you ask someone out? Well, do you think that a relationship with that person will provide you more benefits than your past relationships did (i.e., comparison level)? Do you think that you wouldj0422513 do better asking someone else out instead (i.e., comparison level of alternative)? Likewise, if you are already in a relationship, how long should you stay in it? You might stay as long as it’s better than what you’ve had in the past or until you think you can do better.

Now that you understand this sociological perspective on relationships, I would recommend being careful with how you use it. Specifically, society has rules and guidelines about how we present our decisions to potential romantic partners. When you’re at the local bar this weekend and see a very attractive person, don’t go up to them and tell them that they exceed both your comparison level and comparison level of alternatives. Even saying that the benefits of hooking-up exceed the costs probably won’t work. This is where poets and songwriters come in—they provide much more useful advice on how to enact our romantic lives.


Being 100% honest about the exchange aspect of relationships, even you’re being truthful, can make you sound rather cold-hearted and calculating. Consider the following exchange in a personal ad on Craig’s List. In it, a beautiful woman discusses her problems meeting her ideal mate, and in response a wealthy man subjects her to a rather brutal cost-benefit analysis.



What am I doing wrong?

Okay, I’m tired of beating around the bush. I’m a beautiful (spectacularly beautiful) 25 year old girl. I’m articulate and classy. I’m not from New York. I’m looking to get married to a guy who makes at least half a million a year. I know how that sounds, but keep in mind that a million a year is middle class in New York City, so I don’t think I’m overreaching at all.

Are there any guys who make 500K or more on this board? Any wives? Could you send me some tips? I dated a business man who makes average around 200 - 250. But that’s where I seem to hit a roadblock. 250,000 won’t get me to central park west. I know a woman in my yoga class who was married to an investment banker and lives in Tribeca, and she’s not as pretty as I am, nor is she a great genius. So what is she doing right? How do I get to her level?

Here are my questions specifically:

- Where do you single rich men hang out? Give me specifics- bars, restaurants, gyms

- What are you looking for in a mate? Be honest guys, you won’t hurt my feelings

- -Is there an age range I should be targeting (I’m 25)?

- Why are some of the women living lavish lifestyles on the upper east side so plain? I’ve seen really ‘plain jane’ boring types who have nothing to offer married to incredibly wealthy guys. I’ve seen drop dead gorgeous girls in singles bars in the east village. What’s the story there? j0422990

- Jobs I should look out for? Everyone knows - lawyer, investment banker, doctor. How much do those guys really make? And where do they hang out? Where do the hedge fund guys hang out?

- How you decide marriage vs. just a girlfriend? I am looking for MARRIAGE ONLY

Please hold your insults - I’m putting myself out there in an honest way. Most beautiful women are superficial; at least I’m being up front about it. I wouldn’t be searching for these kind of guys if I wasn’t able to match them - in looks, culture, sophistication, and keeping a nice home and hearth.



I read your posting with great interest and have thought meaningfully about your dilemma. I offer the following analysis of your predicament. Firstly, I’m not wasting your time, I qualify as a guy who fits your bill; that is I make more than $500K per year. That said here’s how I see it.

Your offer, from the prospective of a guy like me, is plain and simple a crappy business deal. Here’s why. Cutting through all the B.S., what you suggest is a simple trade: you bring your looks to the party and I bring my money. Fine, simple. But here’s the rub, your looks will fade and my money will likely continue into perpetuity…in fact, it is very likely that my income increases but it is an absolute certainty that you won’t be getting any more beautiful!

So, in economic terms you are a depreciating asset and I am an earning asset. Not only are you a depreciating asset, your depreciation accelerates! Let me explain, you’re 25 now and will likely stay pretty hot for the next 5 years, but less so each year. Then the fade begins in earnest. By 35 stick a fork in you!

So in Wall Street terms, we would call you a trading position, not a buy and hold…hence the rub…marriage. It doesn’t make good business sense to “buy you” (which is what you’re asking) so I’d rather lease. In case you think I’m being cruel, I would say the following. If my money were to go away, so would you, so when your beauty fades I need an out. It’s as simple as that. So a deal that makes sense is dating, not marriage.

Separately, I was taught early in my career about efficient markets. So, I wonder why a girl as “articulate, classy and spectacularly beautiful” as you has been unable to find your sugar daddy. I find it hard to believe that if you are as gorgeous as you say you are that the $500K hasn’t found you, if not only for a tryout.

By the way, you could always find a way to make your own money and then we wouldn’t need to have this difficult conversation.

With all that said, I must say you’re going about it the right way. Classic “pump and dump.” I hope this is helpful, and if you want to enter into some sort of lease, let me know.


So, what’s the lesson here? While it might be a good idea to know why we make romantic decisions, we might want to be discreet about how we discuss them with potential or existing romantic partners.

That being said, let’s get out there this weekend and maximize comparison levels!

Originally posted in


Knumb said...

Ok, I'm running on two hours of sleep, but here's my take on this... it's a theory I've had for a few years here in Orange County. My buddy, Lee, who's very good looking and nice guy (and quite the dater), and I worked this out over countless lunches in the sun, as Lee grew frustrated seeing hot babes with ugly old guys.

On a scale of 1 to 10, men have a one point advantage over women, in terms of look, with penalties on each side for deficiencies and rewards for some things. For example, a man who is a 7 can date a woman who is an 8, straight across. I chalk this up to women being less focussed on looks than men.

Men get a bonus point for:
- Each in # their net worth (not counting cents, of course) over 6. So, a man with $1 mil in the bank gets a bonus point. $10 mil gets 2.
- Each ex-husband of the woman
- Each child of the woman

Women have fewer possible bonuses. Actually, I've only been able to identify penalties for men.
- They don't start getting bonus points for ex-wives until the second one is in the books.
- Same for kids; the first one is "free" for men.
- For every digit in the man's net worth below 6, there's a one point penalty ($10,000-$99,999 = -1 point). The value of boats does not apply.
- On top of all other measurements of physical looks, there is a 1 point penalty for each inch a man is below 5'8" (waiver for certain ethnic groups).

There, the crassest thing I will have written all year. In my defense, I will reiterate that this is a lot of what the OC is about.

Brad Wright said...

Sadly John, this sounds about right... at least as I remember from living in OC.

What you say fits well with what today's post.