s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: What's love got to do with It?

Sunday, January 03, 2010

What's love got to do with It?

Once in a while, I come across a new idea that fundamentally changes how I see the world. Sometimes the idea turns everything I thought I knew upside down. Other times, the idea fills in a missing puzzle piece in a dozen different situations, unexpectedly finishing a picture that I didn't even realize was incomplete.

Last month-ish, my favorite brother recommended a book called Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. Ariely is a behavioral economist and the book is about how and why we make certain kinds of decisions. One idea he brings up (not original to him, but this is the first I've come across it) is social norms vs. market norms.

In the world of social norms, we do things for each other without expecting financial compensation (in fact, financial compensation is considered insulting and mercenary), but we do expect some sort of social compensation (often by being on the receiving end of a similar favor). In the world of market norms, everything has a price and exchanges are based on that price.

For example, if you go to a restaurant, everything on the menu has a price and you pay for what you order. Likewise, everything in a grocery store has a clear price. Those are market norms. But if you go to your mother's house for Thanksgiving and she fixes you a big meal and you offer to pay her for it, she'll be offended. And if your roommate asks to borrow a cup of milk and you demand 24 cents for it, you'll probably be considered mercenary. However, you're now in a position to ask him or her a small favor. And if the only time you ever spoke to your mother or had contact with her was at Thanksgiving, you'd probably be considered ungrateful.

Market norms aren't bad—without them, we couldn't go grocery shopping if we didn't personally know the store owner. However, social norms are very useful when you want help moving or need to borrow a cup of milk.

Some other thoughts:

• In the last month, two friends have mentioned that they're tired of giving away their professional expertise for free. One said that it's sucking up all of her free time. The other one didn't give specifics, but I gather it's the same issue. (Or she's feeling underappreciated in other ways. Or both.) My first thought on hearing about these situations was "Breakdown of social norms!" It's not that these people are averse to using their professional skills to help their friends, but they're giving out more than they're getting back.

• I think that social norms explain a lot about how online social collaboration works. In theory, no one should be proofreading articles on Wikipedia or combining book editions on LibraryThing or answering questions on the 100 Hour Board for free. In practice, people make those contributions because they like being part of a community. (There may also be a sense of "ownership" involved, whether it's over your article, your tag cloud, or your set of answered questions, so the contribution isn't necessarily entirely altruistic.)

• I recently read an article arguing that we should give cash instead of presents because, on average, we value the gifts we receive at only 80% of their cash value. (I.e., people aren't perfect at picking out gifts, so the gifts lose an average of 20% of their value when they're given.) However, if we give cash, no value is lost in the transaction.

This article rubbed me the wrong way when I read it, but I couldn't put my finger on why until I read about social norms. Reducing the significance of a gift exchange to the market value of the gifts involved ignores the more complex social factors underlying the exchange. (In addition, this argument ignores the value of the "surprise" factor in gift giving, although some people care more about this than others. Perhaps economists, by personality, are less likely to care.)

• Mormon Wards are basically large social exchange markets. We all pitch in for free, but it's OK because everyone else is also pitching in for free. Of course, some people have to do more work than others, but that also seems to go along with more "prestigious" callings. (Is the added level of social prestige necessary to offset the added time investment? Discuss.)


At January 03, 2010 11:53 PM, Blogger Whistler said...

Hmmmm. I've read some similar books...psychology research has a way to go before it fully explains social interactions.

At January 04, 2010 4:23 AM, Blogger Holly K said...

We like to pretend all callings are equal, while they are clearly not. Those with more time-intensive callings appear to get a bad deal if you look it it a simple exchange of time/service for the satisfaction of involvement in a community. You suggest the element of "prestige" as a way to even the score-- if you have more responsibility, you feel more involved in the community than others. This is a sound explanation, yet it has a few problems. One is that some members pour large amounts of time into callings with low levels of prestige-- executive secretaries come to mind. I think while prestige may be one of the added benefits, personal satisfaction also plays a role. Those members with high-commitment/low-profile callings receive additional intangible benefits in the form of feeling good about themselves for selfless service to the community.

At January 04, 2010 5:07 PM, Blogger erin said...

Thanks for mentioning my experience. I liked reading your thoughts here. Holly mentioned personal satisfaction; I think that has a lot to do with it. You can only give so much as you are getting back, and if you run out of steam and get nothing in return, you will die. I don't mind helping if there is some sort of reciprocation--even just slightly--which will contribute back to my satisfaction level and keep me going. But without replenishment, the well will eventually dry up. Even for the most altruistic individuals.

At January 04, 2010 5:14 PM, Blogger Th. said...


Wow. Brilliant question to end on. I'm not sure.

At January 04, 2010 5:24 PM, Blogger David J. West said...

On a personal note, I was happier with the callings almost no one knew I had-security-rather than now teaching the elders and temple.

On a social level I find that I start feeling that with blogs, if I were to comment and comment and comment again somewhere and never get a reply at the least or a return comment on mine, I'm sure I would quit going to that blog.

At January 05, 2010 12:42 AM, Blogger Saule Cogneur said...

On bullet #2: Did you ever read The Tipping Point? One of the three personality types is the maven. They know stuff about stuff; they LIKE knowing stuff about stuff. They also find some kind of satisfaction in contributing to a general body of knowledge. It's not quite the same as community but may be just as if not more significant.

At January 07, 2010 8:54 PM, Blogger Katya said...

SC - No, although it's definitely on my "to read" list. Now I'm even more interested.

David - Interesting observation about blogs.

Erin - I agree. You can go for a little while without getting enough back, but it catches up eventually.

Holly - Oh, I agree that it's not a complete explanation for success or happiness in callings. But do you think that everyone with a "high-commitment/low-profile" calling are equally happy in them? And if not, why not?

Whistler - Agreed.

At January 08, 2010 1:58 PM, Blogger MB said...

What happens when you add the law of consecration to the social norms you live by?

Personally I think it liberates you in amazing ways from the sense of "giving out more than you are getting back". And I have known people who do this in both their church work and their professional lives. But it only liberates you if it is something you embrace by choice, not if it is something you think you are supposed to do. If you are still keeping track subconsciously in spite of your attempts at consecration, it doesn't free you.

I think Erin is right that too much giving without replenishing can leave the reservoir dry, but getting back isn't the only way to keep it full. There are some fabulous other ways to do it if you are willing to make the time.


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