Economists in Love: Ray Fisman

Ray Fisman is the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia University’s business school, which, as far as we can tell, means he teaches MBA students how to make money AND do good for the world. He is also a world authority on love and dating, a regular columnist for Slate.com, the author of Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations, and is currently working on a book about the economics of office life. He is also a doting husband, as is obvious in the interview below:

1. What have you found to be the most useful economic concept to apply to your marriage?

Broadly speaking, it’s useful to be aware of the many human foibles and biases that behavioral economists have borrowed from psychologists. So now they’re sort of economic concepts. My own favorite – important to keep in mind in any collaborative relationship – is self-serving bias. That is, I, my wife, and every other human being views and interprets facts in a self-serving way. Knowing that we’re all vulnerable to this allows me to remain quietly indignant about the fact that I do way more than 50 percent of household work, while recognizing that my wife is deluded into genuinely believing that she is more than pulling her weight as well.

2. Is there any economic concept that you wish your wife could learn?

Again, I’ll draw on something at the intersection of psychology and economics – optimism bias. We all think we’re better and smarter than we really are. My wife is a doctor, and during her rotations through inpatient service she works long days, often stretching into the evening. Every afternoon, she calls to say that she’ll be home by 6:00, only to call at 6:05 to let me know that she’s still wrapping things up at the hospital.

3. Can someone really meet their life partner through speed dating?

Speed dating was invented by an orthodox rabbi who certainly didn’t have one-night stands as his main objective. It’s a less coarse screening mechanism than online dating, some might argue.

4. Does being an economist give you an edge when negotiating with your wife?

One problem with focusing your questions on rational cost-benefit analyses in this way is that it threatens to crowd out the intrinsic motivations that people have for building and nurturing relationships. This is true in business, where there’s a large and growing literature on the crowd-out of intrinsic motivations by extrinsic incentives, and it’s certainly true in marriage.

5. Why didn’t you just become a psychologist?

A great psychologist once told me that economists make models while psychologists make lists. That is, economics makes extreme assumptions to strip complex systems down to its bare essentials – that’s the model.  A good economic model is a far cry from reality, but nonetheless captures its salient features. Psychologists collect lists of behavioral regularities – much more useful for answering questions like these. Besides, if I were mainly interested in understanding what makes a happy marriage rather than why poor countries are poor, then you’re right – psychology was probably the way to go.

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