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Sexless Couples Need Economist in Bedroom, Game Theory: Books

The cover jacket of the book "Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes," by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Humans respond to incentives, as every economist knows. For evidence, consider Howard, a hypercompetitive litigator with a volcanic temper.

Howard would come home so stressed out that he’d go ballistic about tricycles in the driveway and toys on the floor, write Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson in “Spousonomics,” a geeky guide to finding marital bliss through economics.

His tantrums had to go, as Howard always recognized after he calmed down. So he and his wife Jen, a fellow lawyer, sought ways to check his anger. Counting to 20 didn’t work. Nor did deep breathing. Desperate, they created a game in which Jen called out “Red Flag” whenever he looked ready to explode.

“If Howard went three days without a red flag, she’d have sex with him,” the authors write. As puerile as that sounds, the game worked, restoring peace to their home and rekindling their sex life: A classic economic tradeoff, to hear Szuchman and Anderson tell it. Or was it a coup for a manipulative male?

Szuchman works for the Wall Street Journal, Anderson for the New York Times. They interviewed couples across the U.S. to explore the underpinnings of gross domestic puzzles, from the division of labor (who has the comparative advantage in mowing the lawn?) to moral hazard (are you bailing out a deadbeat hubby because your partnership is too big to fail?).

Like many self-help books, this one gets cutesy. Mothers learn baby sign language, and there’s talk of opening your “chakras,” or energy centers. Many of the couples sound like bobos in paradise lost, and some strain credulity: Did that New York fashion writer really marry a cowboy she found riding bulls at a Wyoming rodeo?

Saving Marriages

Am I being churlish? Perhaps. The book is grounded in solid research, makes economics entertaining, and might just save a marriage or two (if you can ignore the cringe-making references to kinky lingerie and My Brest Friend nursing pillows).

The authors began by consulting economists, neoclassical and behavioral alike. Then they hired a market-research company to conduct a nationwide poll that put 63 nosy questions to some 1,000 Americans. They call this their Exhaustive, Groundbreaking and Very Expensive Marriage Survey, a phrase that becomes a running epithet, like Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn.”

Armed with the findings, Szuchman and Anderson sat down with couples from San Francisco to Miami and plied them with pizza and beer. Anonymity was granted; names and identifying details were changed to protect the guilty.

Burst Bubbles

Two by two, the couples described marital clashes that reflected economic dilemmas including burst bubbles (remember those torrid nights before we had baby?) and asymmetric information (how is Bill supposed to know what Angela wants if she doesn’t tell him?). Sound farfetched? Random House editors verified the veracity of the cases, says publicist Karen Fink.

There are chapters on supply and demand -- “or, how to have more sex” -- and “intertemporal choices,” jargon for decisions made today that have consequences in the future. And then there’s loss aversion, the syndrome that makes traders (cue Jerome Kerviel) so desperate to recoup losses that they dig themselves into deep holes.

Szuchman knows something about this, having spent a year fighting with her husband over her frayed La-Z-Boy. He saw the chair as a hideous “brown lump in the middle of his living room.” She saw it as a symbol of her single days and couldn’t “stand the pain” of losing what it meant to her. Until her husband suggested replacing it with a vintage Danish desk from her favorite furniture store. Did she really “weigh the costs and benefits” before ditching the brown lump?

Game Theory

For advanced couples, there’s even a chapter on game theory, which brings us to newlyweds Mike, who had just started a hedge fund, and Ingrid, who worked in crisis communications. Mike was what economists call a free rider: He let Ingrid do the laundry, empty the kitty litter and plan their weekends.

So Ingrid systematically reduced his temptation to freeload by keeping him off guard. One weekend, she made plans for herself and left him home alone. The next week, she didn’t do laundry, leaving him without clean underwear and socks.

Soon, Mike began picking up some slack, which is great, though it makes me wonder how his hedge fund is doing. Wouldn’t a Ken Griffin just pay someone to separate his lights and darks?

“Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes” is from Random House in the U.S. and from Bantam Press in the U.K. (332 pages, $26, 10.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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