Bryan Caplan  

Who Wants to Marry Someone with Self-Control Issues?

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One of the topics Landsburg tackles in More Sex is Safer Sex is the puzzle of self-control. Why do people on diets "lock their refrigerator doors"? Landsburg's answer: "a taste for self-control confers a reproductive advantange"; or to put it bluntly, "a locked refrigerator is a babe magnet."

When you snack at midnight, you get most of the benefits, but your spouse (who has good reasons to care about your health and appearance) shares many of the costs...

...Dieting alone won't do, because no matter how trim you are, the babes are smart enough to suspect you'll revert to your natural gluttony if they're unwise enough to marry you... But if the babes can see that you actually have a taste for self-control, they might be sufficiently reassured to take a chance on you.

I find this whole story baffling. Yes, if you're choosing between the following:
  • a mate with a big appetite who tries to fight it
  • a mate with a big appetite who doesn't try to fight it

you'd prefer the former. But it's far better to find a mate who simply doesn't have a big appetite to fight. Why wouldn't evolution select for that trait, instead of people at war with themselves? And obviously, such people exist. Indeed, if you were to predict the weight of people given their preferences, you'd expect that the thinnest would be those without big appetites, followed by those with big appetites balanced by self-control, followed by those with unrestrained big appetites.

If Landsburg's story doesn't pass muster, what does? It's not a full explanation, but I still like my cynical story that lamenting one's lack of self-control is an attempt to deflect punishment for parasitical behavior:

Why do so many people use the language of addiction? I guess it's partly sincere. I realize that I'm unusually self-satisfied; always have been. But it's also worth pointing out that there is a huge social desirability bias here. Part of the reason why people who spend a lot of time and money on socially disapproved behaviors say they "want to change" is that that's what they're supposed to say.

Think of it this way: A guy loses his wife and kids because he's a drunk. Suppose he sincerely prefers alcohol to his wife and kids. He still probably won't admit it, because people judge a sinner even more harshly if he is unrepentent. The drunk who says "I was such a fool!" gets some pity; the drunk who says "I like Jack Daniels better than my wife and kids" gets horrified looks. And either way, he can keep drinking.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Horatio writes:

If your mate doesn't have a big appetite, you might never know if they'll pass on good self-control genes to your children. However, if your mate manages to control their eating despite gluttonous urges, you know they have good genes to pass to your children.

Another possibility is that low appetite for food is correlated with low appetite for many forms of gratification. Wealth and power are gratifying and people are unlikely to seek out mates who shun these things altogether.

ben writes:

Didn't most of human evolution occur during times when food was scarce/irregular so the ability to eat large amounts of food in one sitting would be advantageous? Its pretty easy to be convinced to eat too much, for example when single people have there meals regularized, through marriage and children, they tend to put on weight. So it may be better to find a mate who doesn't have a big appetite, but its also better to find a mate thats a supermodel but you don't always get the choice.

David Welker writes:

There seems to be a major problem with your cynical theory (not that I am endorsing Landsburg either). It seems to wrongly assume that there is just one story or explanation. Perhaps your cynical story is correct in some cases. With billions of people, it would not be suprising if your cynical explanation had merit in at least one case. On the other hand, it would be very suprising if it was correct for everyone or most people.

One could also speculate as to why you gravitate towards this intuitively unlikely explanation, since you apparently do not have any empirical basis for your apparent bias in this direction. It is as if you assume no one ever genuinely regrets indulging in their short-term inclinations at the expense of their long-term interests and against their larger principles. Do you gravitate towards this explanation because it is accurate for you personally? And if so, is this because you are perfect or nearly perfect (i.e. never behave in a manner violating long-term interests or larger principles) or because you have few larger principles to which you adhere or conflicts between short-term inclinations and long-term interests?

The more intelligent inquiry is empirical. How often is your explanation valid. As an initial matter, to the extent that my speculation above has any grounding, it is unlikely valid very often, since very few people are like you. Your radical views are most likely explained by your unusual personality, even more than your training in economics. Your non-empirical prediction explanation here, to the extent it is based on the assumption that others are like yourself, is most certainly wrong. After all, as a self-described radical, your type is rare, not common.

Ted Craig writes:

The answer lies in art rather than economics. The saint without effort is boring. The sinner without repentance is repellent. But the one who struggles with himself is usually the most interesting character in fiction.

Rimfax writes:

Commenters above touched on this already.

It may be that the mate with strong appetites that need to be controlled is more desirable both because of his control and his appetite.

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