Economists in Love: Colin Camerer

A behavioral economist and game theorist at the California Institute of Technology, Colin Camerer is among a band of renegade researchers using brain scans to figure out why we’re so irrational when it comes to making economic decisions. It’s called neuroeconomics, and it’s coming to a lab near you. Colin has been married to Sharon for almost 8 years and is proud that she didn’t vet these answers.

1) How do you ensure your marriage is Pareto efficient?

Great question! Pareto efficiency means there is no simple change that makes both people happier (or just as happy). How do you find mutually-desirable simple changes then?  Answer: Communication! The goal is to avoid an O. Henry situation in which the wife sells her hair to buy a watch chain, and the husband sells his remarkable watch to buy his wife a comb for her gorgeous long hair.  To this end, “Is this really important to you?” (hopefully sometimes “No”), “What simple thing can I do to make you happy today?” and “Perfection is the enemy of the good” are useful phrases to have on sincere-repeat.

2) Some people think “strategizing” isn’t an activity spouses should engage in with each other. What do you think?

Of course you should strategize… and you do! Mathematically, strategizing just means you are thinking about what another person might do that could help or hurt you. You are doing that— and should be— whether you like or not. There’s even evidence that the brain’s “default network”—activity at rest with no external stimulation—involves some thinking about other people. Human social life is complicated; so we spend a lot of time rehearsing.

3) Over the years, have you gotten better or worse at predicting your wife’s behavior in a given interaction?

I have definitely gotten much better. I am even able to figure out what is good for her better than she herself can…and can sometimes convince her it was her idea in the first place! (about one time in ten.)

4) Any free riding in your household?

No. Here’s why: I am one of the world’s leading experts on psychology, the brain and strategic game theory. But my wife is a woman. So it’s a tie.

5) What do we know about what happens to the brain when we’re in love? Married?

Evolutionarily, a major purpose of dramatic visceral emotional attachment is men signaling that they will help you raise your baby after conception, and women signaling fidelity (so you are confident it’s yours…pre-Jerry Springer paternity testing, who knows?). On top of this are genes, which are like the most insane grandparents ever: They want more genetic kin pronto, so a lot of reward and emotional signaling circuitry is recruited by flashing the “LOVE” sign.

In contrast, marriage is like hot slow-burning embers compared to the flashy flames of love. After the babies, the married brain has better things to do—micromanage, focus on those babies, create comfort zones. Marriage love can then burrow deeper, to the marrow.

6) Isn’t it highly irrational to get married knowing that half of all marriages end in divorce?

Hope springs eternal: Nobody gets married thinking “60-40”, rolling the dice (well, maybe Larry King’s wives). The traditional marriage imposed a moral obligation on women, and if the marriage ended they were out of luck. In the modern Western no-fault divorce with alimony and child support, women have more of an option to try being married. If that fails, then strip the assets from the failed business. (A big ouch for everyone).  That’s not advice, just a statement of a pattern. Statistically, in upper-class marriages with assets, women are more prone to initiate a divorce after a prolonged period of unhappiness. So: Husbands, choose wisely, ponder the prenup, and love that woman!  Or never marry again, as George Clooney has vowed.

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