Sunday, July 05, 2009

Relational Economics

I'm on vacation, which means I get to spend some quality time nerding out with my brother. We just used a big chunk of beach as a chalkboard to explore this question:

Can relationships be meaningfully described as a series of rational decisions?

My mom's immediate answer, when she walked by to see what we were up to, was "don't be silly." First off, looking at the decisions that get made in a relationship doesn't really tell you about the heart and soul of that relationship, the emotion and subtlety that make that relationship work. Second, anyone who has experience with these things will tell you that relationships can be anything but rational. There's no rhyme or reason to love, and we had all better get used to it.

Despite the fact that she's my mother, and therefore always right, my brother and I persisted. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that relationships can be described that way. That means that a relationship can be thought of as a series of decisions that people make, and each of those decisions can be broken down to a sort of cost/benefit analysis that has one logical conclusion. This kind of a theory isn't meant to be practical, like most real world examples of physics most real world relationships are far too complicated to be predicted with any precision. (Physics can't, in any practical way, tell you how a teapot is going to shatter.) It could be interesting in thinking about overall trends in the ways that people connect with one another and communities come together.

Because, irrational as relationships seem, the decisions that we make in them almost always ARE rational (or at least as "rational" as our decisions to purchase things, and that hasn't hurt the field of economics.) To test this my brother and I decided to explore the following scenario:

Bob has called Alice and invited her to play golf on Saturday. Will Alice say yes?

As I've mentioned before in this blog, decisions about time are particularly important to understanding what makes relationships tick. A quick poll of the beach seemed to hint that this was, in fact, a problem with a rational answer. When presented with the scenario, people immediately sought to define factors which would define a rational decision.

"I think she would," said a passing six year old "because girls like golf."

Her friend, eager to contribute to the problem, added another condition "She might stay home if she was sick though."

The response of these two girls was telling. If the decisions that we make in relationship were completely irrational then they would have simply shrugged their shoulders, as they would if I asked them whether it would rain in a month. Their guts and life experience told them that the situation with Bob and Alice COULD be understood if the right initial conditions were known. That is, if we know enough about how Alice feels about golf, enough about how she feels about Bob, enough about her other options for that Saturday and a few other tidbits of information then we can predict her decision with at least the theoretical certainty that economists predict real-world economic behavior. My brother and I had fun for the better part of an hour mapping these criteria on the sand, but I won't bore you with them here.

Instead, I'd like to talk about the possible implications of this rationality. Let's pretend for a moment that the statement at the beginning of this post is true. If it is, then the process by which relationships form and thrive can be mapped in a new sort of theoretical detail. Rather than bitching about dating, we could tease the process of dating apart and ask ourselves whether a better system could be designed for producing intimate human relationships. Rather than trying to build professional communities by throwing 500 people with business cards in a room together we could begin to build a real set of knowledge about what makes relationships happen and what doesn't. The art of community building seems stuck at the developmental stage of medieval medicine; a conglomeration of pet theories, wives tales and one-off solutions. It seems like we can do better.

I'll leave it here for now, and solicit people's responses to the questions above. Can relationships be described as a series of rational decisions? When (if ever) can't they? And if you had to map the criteria influencing Alice's decision to play golf with Bob then how would you do it?