Bryan Caplan  

Lemons for Valentine's Day

A Happiness Experiment... Lighten Up on Happiness, Arnol...

Match Point, yet another Woody Allen movie about adultery, reminds me of a question I've often wondered about: Why hasn't the lemons problem killed adultery? To be more specific, why would any women want to steal a man who lies to, cheats on, and then dumps his wife? This is particularly clear in Match Point - the mistress angrily insists that her boyfriend leave his wife, even though he's shown her in a hundred ways that he's a lying, cheating parasite.

In the actual market for used cars, of course, the markets has largely solved the lemons problems using reputation, inspection, and warrantees. You don't want to sell low-quality products if it will ruin your firm's reputation, if they have to pass inspection first, or if a dissatisfied customer can return the product and get his money back. But it's hard to see that mistresses can rely on any of these mechanisms. Few adulterers build up a reputation for standing by their mistresses. Most adulterers wouldn't pass inspection. And I've never heard of an adulterer giving a credible money-back guarantee ("If I don't leave my wife within a year, you get a full year of your life back!").

One solution to this puzzle is to challenge the deny that mistresses want to marry the men they're cheating with. Maybe both are in it for the short-term. But this hardly seems like a plausible explanation for the typical long-term affair.

Another solution is that the typical adulterer is so desirable in all other dimensions that he's a good catch despite his lack of character. Maybe a segment of women prefer a small chance of marrying a rich, successful liar to a high chance of marrying an honest nobody. There's probably something to this, although it still seems like a lot of adulterers are nothing special by any measure.

Still another story is that mistresses are capitalizing on the life cycle. If a 25-year-old mistress convinces a 45-year-old success object to leave his wife, he won't want to cheat on her for fifteen years, at which point he'll be too old to attract another 25-year-old, so he'll stay.

In the end, though, I think that most of the puzzle has to be resolved with psychology rather than economics. The average mistress is probably overconfident; she imagines that she is a lot more desirable than the average mistress. So if a mistress convinces a man to leave his wife, she tends to think that he left because she is so great, not because he can't be trusted.

Happy Valentine's Day, Econlog!

P.S. I will not be held liable for any Valentine's dates ruined as a result of this post.

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The author at Innovation Online in a related article titled The Market for Love writes:
    Caplan wonders why romantic relationships don’t suffer from the lemon problem. Match Point, yet another Woody Allen movie about adultery, reminds me of a question I've often wondered about: Why hasn't the lemons problem killed adultery? To be more sp... [Tracked on February 15, 2006 11:07 AM]
COMMENTS (15 to date)
liberty writes:

Great post, fun to read, not sure how correct the reasoning is though. I tend to look more to evolution than economics when analyzing romantic behavior - but its not easy to answer from an evolutionary perspective either. The female uses her emotional instinct more than sexual when choosing a mate, while men seem to be opposite. Women require a man who will marry (who will stay and protect the offspring) more than just a fertile one. Men the opposite. This is because the female will stay and raise the children as it is to her own advantage - men do better to find multiple mates and hence create more offspring. So why would a female choose a mate that has already proven that he does not have the evolutionarily advantageous characteristics of a good mate?

My conclusion is that the women who choose a cheating mate are the tail of the curve - the mutants - the less likely to survive ones. They still exist because they have been able to protect their offsping even after he leaves or the children have grown by the time he does. A few women will use sexual instinct when they should use emotional instinct, and he has proven himself fertile and possibly good genetically and perhaps the offspring are very healthy for this reason. Yet it isn't a good evolutionary strategy and indeed there are not very many women who use it.

Most women, in other words, are smart enough to avoid men like that.

Robert Schwartz writes:

First, I must say I hated match point. About 15 minutes before the theater lights came back on (the movie had ended long before) people started taking their cell phones out and calling for restaurant reservations.

Second, why scarlet is hot for chris makes no sense. In the first part of the movie, she is a gold-digger. but chris only has money because he was a gold digger who married into the wealthy family. So scarlet is suddenly a romantic, as is chris. if he were really cold blooded, he wouldn't have had the affair with scarlet, because he knows that money is more important than sex. And Scarlet as well.

But, if the plot made sense the movie would have been much better.

John writes:

Here's a radical notion to consider: human beings aren't cars. Lemons are innately flawed, and flawed beyond hope of fixing. The metaphor doesn't neatly apply to human beings, which (despite cliches to the contrary) do actually change, both in terms of their personality/character, and in terms of the context. Regarding context: a great deal of bad behavior is situational, and you're misattributing it when your metaphor implies that it's entirely inherent to the individual. -- a fellow GMU prof (in the social sciences)

Zubon writes:

Great post. I believe the overconfidence point is the usual one I hear on that front. "He wouldn't do it to me."

I have never heard anyone put forth the life cycle theory before. I might consider an extension of it (could work for either sex): at 25, marry a wealthier 45-year-old cheater, under the theory that you have 15-20 years, during which your partner continually decreases in ability to attract 25-year-olds; twenty years later, you are now 45 and can take your pick of the gold-digging 25-year-olds with which to cheat. Advanced option: divorce with half the resources, re-marry, and assume that your new spouse would never try the same thing on you (despite doing exactly what you did at his/her age).

Silas Barta writes:

What about the child support laws? If the woman gets pregnant, she can sue for (what to her appears to be) a "mother lode" of money. While you may think this only applies to the very wealthy men, it actually also applies to even upper middle class -- even lower middle class in areas with low median incomes.

Alex J. writes:

Speculation and metaphor ahead:

Scarlet's genes want her to get ahold of Chris's genes. If she has sons by him they in turn will get his scheming, handsome, intelligent, gutsy, seductive, can't-keep-it-in-his-pants genes that will carry her genes along too.

Sometimes women react to their SO's cheating by intense anger and jealousy directed at the WOMAN with whom he has cheated. She's trying to steal his paternal resources. However, the cheating spouse has demonstrated his value as a father who will beget children who in turn will beget grandchildren.

Another thing: My wife and her friends have noticed that for women, "There's the kind of man you marry and the kind of man you date." In other words, some men are responsible providers, good for raising children. Other men are rakish and seductive, the kind of men that women want to sleep with before settling down with a more respectable husband later. In the movie, Chris's marriage is one type of relationship, and his affair with Scarlet Johannsen is the other. Johansen is clearly at the tipping point where she is becoming dissatisfied with her flings and wants to settle down.

sourcreamus writes:

I think it is because women are overconfident in their ability to judge men. A mechanic doesn't worry about buying lemons because he understands cars and can examine a car and find out if its a lemon. Women who marry cheaters are similarly confident about their ability to judge men. Men who cheat are like lemons who give great test drives and then fall apart after the purchase is made.

Zubon writes:

The particular form of "great test drive" is important, though. The flaw is pretty obvious: he is cheating on his wife. The impression the cheater hopes to give, however, is the one that John says: his cheating is only situational. The cheater wants to say that he is the one who married a lemon, which is why he is looking for other women.

The cheater wants his new woman to believe that she is not just a mechanic who can identify (or fix) a lemon, but that she is an great one who can see the excellent car where everyone else sees a lemon (cheating husband). She thinks she is getting a great deal here, since she has found a good car priced as if it were a lemon. Ha!

If John's surmise correct, and the behavior tends to be situational, then people who cheat with others' spouses are correcting flaws in the "romantic market," finding good potential spouses who under-married and inducing them to pursue better options. They really are mechanics who can find the best cars, whereas the cheaters just have lousy drivers, as it were. If this idea is wrong, cheaters will continue to cheat, and they are just reinforcing their partners' overconfidence with the flattering notion of being the excellent mechanic.

Not only, "he would never do it to me," but also, "he would only do it to her." That is, "the other woman" need not think that she herself is anything special to keep his attentions, only that she is keen-eyed enough to see a man who would be faithful if he was married to someone else.

This gives us two more psychological explanations: overconfidence in her perceptions (in addition to overconfidence in her desirability) and disdain for the current spouse.

This is an idea worth considering, to me. You need not think that you are exceptionally good, only that someone else is significantly worse. Do we not often see mistresses who believe that their lovers' wives are horrible people? The important consideration for a mistress's behavior is not whether the cheater's behavior is situational, but whether she believes it to be so, either because his current situation is bad or because his new situation with her would be good.

Silas Barta writes:

Another thing: couldn't you say the same thing about employees changing jobs? "Oh, he'll quit on his current boss, but he'll be loyal to me." Whatever reason keeps employers poaching good employees, keeps women poaching attractive men.

liberty writes:

>Another thing: couldn't you say the same thing about employees changing jobs? "Oh, he'll quit on his current boss, but he'll be loyal to me." Whatever reason keeps employers poaching good employees, keeps women poaching attractive men.

Interesting point, but the boss possibly only needs the employee for one project. If he poaches an employee who is not irreplacable on the old project (and hence not walking out and destroying the previous firm) and says the new one is very interesting, the boss can take the risk on him in hopes he'll stay for the duration of the project, especially if he is paid better.

Ita a bigger risk for a marriage if you assume the woman wants him to stay forever and not take side jobs as it were.

Silas Barta writes:

Interesting point, but the boss possibly only needs the employee for one project.

I don't think so. Employers that only need someone for one project typically hire contract workers (called "shoppers" where I work), who make a lot more per hour, but whose income is much more risky, and are dismissed (and quit) with less hesitation. There are already firms (called "job shops" where I work) that farm out such people. An employer generally doesn't go through the risk and expense of poaching labor just for one project. I do agree that an employee quitting isn't as bad as a husband divorcing.

liberty writes:

True. But during the internet boom by husband did a lot of poaching of guys he met at one job for the next job he was taking (as he had a lead position) and he cared much more about the coding or design abilities of the guys than whether they would actually stay at the new job past the given project. Most of them went through a half-dozen employers in the same number of years, but they always finished the project or the important part of the project until they could move on without hurting the firm.

James writes:

The employee-employer relationship is different from marriage in several ways, but most relevant here seems to be that marriage nearly always includes an (understood) agreement not to moonlight and not to quit until death. If I had the option of hiring someone that I knew was violating a noncompete clause, I'd not have to think too hard about it.

Diego writes:

This seems tricky. I have not seen Match point, but to me the question is, how much of 'trying to steal a man' that cheats is actually a 'rational' decision vis-à-vis a hard-wired level of attraction?

Attraction seems to happen at a subconscious level. Most people don't know what characteristics in a (potential) partner makes him/her attractive to them. (There was a good chapter in "Blink" about this.)

If you use evolutionary psychology to analyze the puzzle you can probably go further: the man has proven that his genes are desirable (he has managed to attract a sexual partner of the opposite sex), and has proven to be a provider. Add to that a little overconfidence on the female side ("of course I am better than his current wife"), and perhaps the paradox will seem to be the result of evolutionary game theory applied to mating selection/attraction.

pontus writes:

See for a solution to the lemon problem.

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