Art Carden  

Will The Internet Destroy Marriage or Save It?

BAAAA! Tremble Before the Mig... A fascinating short history of...

On May 29, I explained my answer to Bryan's question about using a billion dollars. I added a bonus question based on a conversation with Bryan:

In the short run, Facebook will probably lead to an increase in the divorce rate. In the long run, it will probably lead to a reduction in the divorce rate. Why?

As always, there were some great comments. Daniel Kuehn got straight to the point:

1. Spouses will learn more about each other 2. Spouses will learn more about each other

Then a couple of comments later Daniel nailed it:

Here's one answer to the bonus. In short run, people will connect/reconnect people they wouldn't otherwise have--people with whom they share more in common than their current spouses--and that will break up existing marriages. Long run, people will be with people who they are more compatible with (because of more shared interests, discovered through stuff like facebook,, eharmony, etc.), and thus won't divorce as often.

Ken P offered the following:

Short run: Spouses will see they have more options. Long run: Spouses will have made choices from a wider range of options.

This fits with the Nobel winning work of Shapely and Gale. A major weak point in this perspective is that it assumes human mate preferences are static and that aggregate preferences suffice.

In the real world, "things change" (we've all given or been given that speech). Also in the real world, the heterogeneity of mate preferences is important. A spouse's weakness in a particular area may detract from long term sustainability despite an aparrent short term higher aggregate value.

A major drawback with Match and other online dating sites is that they get courtship out of order by starting with higher brain compatibility.

In the short run, commenters were correct that Facebook, Match, and others will expand the range of outside options for the already-attached (if you ask around, you'll probably meet at least one person for whom the internet contributed to divorce). In the long run, though, websites like Facebook, eHarmony, and will lead to better matches and, I would expect, less divorce.

There were also good answers to "why won't this work?" regarding my billion-dollar proposal. I'll post on that later, but the basic answer is pretty much the universal Austrian/public choice economist's answer: "information and incentives."

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CATEGORIES: Microeconomics

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Cimon Alexander writes:

I expect that having more mate choice will lead to an increase in divorce and that effect will dominate any counter-effect from "better" choices. I am very, very skeptical that divorce comes from mates not making good enough choices. Rather, I expect that it is the natural human inclination for the eye to wander after a time and that having more ability and lower consequences for wandering always gives more divorce.

NZ writes:

You write about the internet and marriage, yet nobody mentions porn even once?

Rafal Smigrodzki writes:

It is not a foregone conclusion that the long term effect of social media on marriage would be positive. Sure, theoretically, by increasing the efficiency of searching for true soulmates as opposed to merely compatible mates, social media might increase the fraction of such soulmate marriages which again theoretically, might be more stable.

Yet, this assumes that the stability of a marriage is primarily a function of idiosyncratic compatibility, the kind that is enhanced by selection from a larger pool of candidates. However, the experience of traditional societies, especially ones with arranged marriages, indicates that marital stability is more a function of the general social environment surrounding a couple (e.g. the level of opprobrium attached to infidelity). Social media do make infidelity easier, thus destabilizing marriage, at any endogenous level of compatibility. General personality features, such as conscientiousness, play a major role as well, probably much larger than idiosyncratic compatibility. Conscientiousness predicts marital stability no matter who you are married to but social media do not increase the number of available conscientious persons.

I would predict that the net effect of social media on marriage will be destabilizing in the long term, and the stabilizing effect of better matches will be outweighed by the destabilizing effect of a static increase in extramarital opportunities.

NZ writes:

Thinking more specifically about social media now, I don't think it will have the long-term positive impact on marriage (or negative impact on divorce) that others predict.

Rafal Smigrodzki's points seem most sensible to me. Additionally, successful marriage, even to a well-matched spouse, is largely about compromise and sacrifice. Past a certain level of compatibility these become increasingly important, especially as kids enter the picture.

Social media, with its endless niche-making, low-cost exits, and profile-updating, does not encourage people to compromise or sacrifice, and instead reinforces the notion of the selfish individual at the center of the universe. Good luck marrying that!

Tom West writes:

I think Rafal's last paragraph nails it.

I remember reading a long time ago a quote from some social scientist indicating that infidelity correlated better to opportunity than anything else (I think this was with respect to why movie star marriages tend to fail and why they weren't necessarily less moral - they just had more opportunity).

If that's true (and I suspect it is), then social media, simply by increasing our circle of contacts, may decrease marriage stability.

MingoV writes:
... In the long run, though, websites like Facebook, eHarmony, and will lead to better matches and, I would expect, less divorce....
Not may, not possibly, not probably, but will. Such an assertion, based only on speculation, is inappropriate for anyone who claims to be a scientist. Restating the assertions as hypotheses is the correct approach.

My hypothesis are:

1. Social media will lead to fewer marriages (The existing trend will continue.).

2. The marriages that occur will be no more stable than today because people use social media to show their desired personae, not their true personalities, interests, and character. (When reality strikes, there goes the marriage.)

Tom West writes:

Such an assertion, based only on speculation, is inappropriate for anyone who claims to be a scientist.

This is a blog post, not a published article. It's one step above dinner conversation.

I don't think demanding standards well above the medium serves either the author or the readers well. (I don't want a single heavily researched blog post a year. I have Nature and other periodicals for that.)

Glen Smith writes:

It will only save marriage if you accept the redefinition of marriage.

Art Carden writes:

@NZ: on porn, here's an interesting 2006 paper by Winai Wongsurawat:

@MingoV: please forgive me for a badly-worded sentence, and thanks for pointing this out.

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