Bryan Caplan  

The Futility of Quarreling When There Is No Surplus to Divide

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Imagine two people have the following relationship options:

Option A: Date
Option B: Be Friends
Option C: Stop Seeing Each Other

Person #1's preference ordering is: {A, C, B}.  In English, #1 most prefers to date, and least prefers to just be friends.

Person #2's preference ordering is: {B, C, A}.  In English, #2 most prefers to just be friends, and least prefers to date.

In popular stereotypes, Person #1 is male, and Person #2 is female.  But role reversal is probably common, too.

Given these preferences, anything other than C naturally leads to bad feelings.  Person #1 resents being stuck in "the friend zone."  Person #2 resents Person #1's view that being friends is an imposition or probationary situation.  It's easy to see how they might angrily quarrel with each other, with Person #1 harping on his superiority to whoever Person #2 dates, and Person #2 pointing out that Person #1 should be grateful for their friendship.  The fight could get really ugly, as in the web comic "The Friend-Zoner vs. Nice Guy."

On reflection, though, this quarreling is the epitome of futility.  Sure, argument has been known to change preferences.  But these preferences?  Is #1 really going to argue #2 into feeling attracted to him when she's not?  Is #2 really going to argue #1 out of his feelings of yearning and rejection?  Extremely unlikely.  Quarreling is ultimately a form of bargaining.  With preference orderings {A, C, B} and {B, C, A}, the only mutually beneficial bargain is ceasing to deal with each other.  And since either person can instantly and unilaterally jump to C by saying, "So long, have a nice life," what's the point of quarreling to get there?

If you're deeply economistic, you'll naturally ask, "Why not consider Option D: side payments?"  "If you agree to just be friends, I'll do your laundry" or "If you agree to date, I'll pay for every meal."  But in many cases - if not most - offering or accepting side payments feels so degrading that neither side can accept it.  Option D is off the table because the parties' expanded rankings are {A, C, B, D} and {B, C, A, D}.

Needless to say, people have imperfect information about other people's preferences.  Indeed, people have imperfect information about their own preferences.  Yet in many real world relationships, preferences are fairly obvious - and my analysis applies.

I suspect that many non-economists will dismiss this whole approach as "overly analytical."  I beg to differ.  Widespread futile quarreling is a strong sign that emotional approaches have failed.  The only way out is to calm down and admit that bad matches aren't anyone's fault.  When two people want incompatible things, they should politely say goodbye and move on with their lives.  Almost everyone can see this by the time they're 40.  With economics by your side, you can attain this enlightened state at once.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
BLM4L writes:

"Quarreling" makes sense even on economistic terms if it is understood as preference discovery.

Suppose Person #2 instead has an B,A,C ordering. In English, #2 most prefers to just be friends, but would date over losing #1 entirely.

In this case, it makes sense for Person #1 to argue because this can persuade #2 to recognize that #1 prefers C to A, and therefore cause #2 to accept B. It would similarly make sense for #2 to hold out to force #1 to prove that #1 prefers A,C,B rather than A,B,C.

Now, maybe B,A,C is unlikely because, hey, there are a lot of fish in the sea. But think of these special cases:

i. #2 lives in a small town and #1 is one of the few nice people #2 knows. #2 likes #3 better but not by much, and #3 might not like #2 back.

ii. #2 and #1 have a baby.

Joel Aaron Freeman writes:

Very cute. I would certainly accept payment for being friend-zoned!

David Friedman writes:

I'm not sure side payments are really impractical--they just shouldn't be identified as such. Friends do all sorts of favors for each other. So the person who wants friendship but nothing more makes a point of keeping a credit balance of favors--showing what a good friend she is.

Jameson writes:

Could "side payments" be like, you know, "friends with benefits"?

Pajser writes:

I don't know. They have magic on their side.

It hurts even from distance, right? I'm afraid that those who believe they can keep their preferences in line fool themselves.

steve writes:

I agree with the other posters. Side payments can be very effective for both sides. I also agree it is best not to spell it out.

For the friend doing the laundry. She/he should come to visit and just do the laundry every time they are there. Bet, they get invited over every time the laundry needs doing.

As for dating, go out on the pretext as a friend, if you have the money, spend a little extravagantly. Most people enjoy the high life. If it is fun enough, you might just get your girlfriend.

nl7 writes:

The preferences may be changeable based on a romantic or overt gesture, particularly if the parties are recent acquaintances and the preferences haven't settled. Some people might romantically qualify their prospects based on their passion or demonstrativeness, such that a big gesture or romantic confrontation increases the ranking of A.

Other people might actually enjoy the drama and conflict. After all, #2 gets to be told she is desirable and valuable, and receives a laundry list of her best traits. This is a partial proxy for sex, with much of the affection and validation without the need for a relationship or actual sex (assuming one prefers the affection but is less interested in the actual sex). And #1 gets to be passionate and dramatic, a real tortured soul, but doesn't have to engage in a real relationship that would probably get boring and then fail. This is a proxy for extended romance, one that lets him experience himself as an important lover and deep feeler.

If the parties enjoy the quarreling (even a cold war situation) then they might put preference E in their second spot - something less than a relationship, but not a friendship, where they flirt with the drama for as long as they both want to feel it. If the ranking is A,E or B,E then both will prefer E to C (at least for a time). Not everybody is going to think the drama is horrible - it lets you feel emotions, including sad ones, and to feel like you're in an important and romantically meaningful contest. Some people LIKE the dispute, so they don't need economic analysis to get out of it.

Personally, I did the dispute thing with my current partner. It didn't take long, since we had just met, but I managed to convince her to leave her underwhelming boyfriend. We've been together 12.5 years now, so I'm not one who loves drama.

CEC writes:

A minor quibble about the following: "With economics by your side, you can attain this enlightened state at once."

What you've shown is a simple piece of game theory, not economics. While most economists are familiar with game theory, they do not have a monopoly on the g.t. field.

CMC writes:

I agree.

I, and more importantly, probably many of my fellow native americans, don't get along with a lot of these new immigrants. The only way out is to calm down, and all admit that it's a bad match that isn't anyone's fault. We natives and lotsa these new immigrants just want incompatible things.

So they should politely say goodbye and move on back to their home countries and let's all get on with our lives. I mean, we natives shouldn't have to leave or go through all this trouble and quarreling.

Thank you.

BZ writes:

@CEC - Eight (8) game theorists have won the Nobel prize in .. wait for it .. economics. I think there is probably more overlap than is commonly appreciated.

MingoV writes:

Nice post. I've been through a few variations of those options. The side payments option (otherwise known as a bribe) doesn't seem workable in regards to emotions. If I've decided not to date a woman or be her friend, what opportunities would she have for side payments? And why would I accept them?

LD Bottorff writes:

Imagine someone has the following employment options at a company:

Option A: Work as a manager for $60K/Year.
Option B: Work as an hourly employee for $22/Hour.
Option C: Go someplace else

What's different? The assumption that in Bryan's example two people are negotiating their preferences from relatively equal positions. Most people would assume that in my example the employer has the greater power. I don't think that is the case, but perhaps I'm being overly analytical.

Bryan's observation is completely valid; when an employer and employee want incompatible things, they should politely say goodbye and move on.

Ken P writes:
In popular stereotypes, Person #1 is male, and Person #2 is female. But role reversal is probably common, too.

It sometimes goes the other way, just like men are sometimes taken advantage of for sex. But for the most part men get "friend-zoned" and women fall into the "booty call" trap.

In these cases, they are already making side payments. The guy is giving up time that he could spend on someone who does want to "date". We know what the woman is giving up.

To a large extent, it is a difference of perceived value where the chaser may be a 6 and the one being chased an 8, for example. That difference becomes magnified when the other one pines after them.

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