Classics pt. 9: The economics of sex
You see, come early January, this blog will essentially relaunch in a move I like to think of as Sexless 2.0 — about which you’ll learn more in my inaugural post for 2007. Sorry there was no follow-up to, uh, last time’s post, but it seems that food doesn’t make you think about love, at least this time of year.
Thanks for still stopping by! And I’ll have more on the new developments very soon. Meanwhile, on with the retro posts ...
Originally posted March 29, 2005
Normally I don’t read much of the New York Times, much less its weekend-feature sections, but Sunday’s week-in-review had an interesting piece on choice. To wit:Too many options may drive consumers away. [... P]eople who chose one chocolate from a selection of 30 expressed more regret and uncertainty about their decision than those who chose among six kinds. That’s because with 29 other options, there is a bigger chance of losing out on something better.Now before you run riot on me, demanding to know why such a dry and humdrum piece has shown up on a blog about sex, for God’s sake ... Think about Thaler’s statement for a minute. Not so far from how we tend to look at relationships these days, is it? Leaving aside the whole issue of how commodified relationships have become — which is worth a few columns in itself — don’t we tend to approach our love lives like that choice between chocolates? Consequently, the anxiety described by the researchers is not so different when it comes to dating. And then you’re not just trying to find a sweet that suits your tongue, you’re trying to find good sex! You’re maybe even trying to find the one!! Talk about pressure.
[...] The key is whether people understand their choices, said Richard H. Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago. “People have to know what their preferences are and they have to know how the options they have map onto their preferences,” he said.
This might be easy when choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. But it gets progressively more difficult as the number of flavors increases. When the risks are high and the decisions complex — as when choosing between medical procedures or investment portfolios — consumers may become easily flummoxed.
I like to maintain (in my mode as eccentric economist) that the fears of commitment and choice come down to neglect of a certain concept from that Intro to Microeconomics class you’ve probably forgotten you ever took. Remember when you were learning the basics? A certain lesson about some concept known as opportunity cost? That, my friends, is what is known as the cost of choosing. It’s why economists like to toss about that dreadful, inelegant phrase: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Meaning, a (possibly crummy) free lunch is one you take instead of other options. Like fasting. Or paying for lunch yourself. Or bringing a lunch from home. Anything you do, anything you buy, every time you invest your time or your resources somehow entails a choice between what you do or buy or commit to and the things that you did not. Much of the time we may not even realize a choice is involved because the options seem so imbalanced. One choice (or potential date) so clearly overshadows the other option, it doesn’t seem like a choice.
But it is. And whatever you choose to forego — regardless of how much you know or don’t about what you’re missing — is the opportunity cost of what or whom you do/buy/date. With me so far?
Now, when the options are fairly well known, the stress of choosing is probably lower. Say you’re out at a bar some night, and you decide that tonight you’re going to get laid if you can help it. Assuming you know no one at the bar, your choices are whatever people are there (also assuming you won’t pay directly for sex, procuring it indirectly with booze and charm and so forth), with a possible choice between friends and strangers, depending on the circumstances.
In most such circumstances, the people I know wouldn’t get themselves all freaked out about the choice involved (or debate if they’re in the right bar) — except for the unknowns of disease and psychosis and other unanticipated consequences. But when it comes to things like long-term relationships or even ... marriage ... we tend to get a little more uptight. In my observations, people are far more concerned about the unknown options they’re passing up when the choice is weighty. Sometimes the decision-making even tries to focus on eliminating the obligation to choose precisely because of that weight of significance.
But it never goes away. And you can never fully account for what’s unknown. That’s just part of how life is. So my advice (admittedly as one who doesn’t do much dating these days) is this: don’t spend all your energy waiting and hoping the longer you wait that the choice will resolve itself (though sometimes it might). Procrastination is just as much a choice as action is; the only difference is the amount of denial involved, concerning your “responsibility” for what ends up happening to you. So don’t focus on trying to get yourself out of having to choose. That’s a part of life we can’t control.
Restlessness, too, crops up as resiliently as dandelions. The only antidote to this that I’ve discovered is reminding myself of certain truths. Because everything I’ve committed myself to (staying up late to finish a potholder, holding out for a Jesus freak who likes his booze) means giving up something else, there’s never gonna be a “perfect” choice that I could not someday regret. Choosing sleep instead of caffeine resuscitation the morning after ... choosing to date a boozehound who’s freaked by Jesus, or a Freak who’s on the tea wagon ... are choices I could have questioned just as much as this one. Thus it’s just as much the restlessness as the choice I’ve got to learn to deal with. After all, in another lesson your econ prof probably tried to hammer home, the reason there’s always scarcity is that human desire — demand for things — will always expand ahead of what is provided. As David Wilcox has sung,... even when I’ve got everything I need,
I can tell myself times are tough.
No there’s never enough.