10.16.12

The Nobel Winner’s Guide to Love

Don’t know about matching algorithms? You can still pick up some valuable lessons from this year’s laureate in economics. Paula Szuchman on what nerds know about marriage, sex, and romantic tacos.

That Alvin Roth is a genius has now been officially confirmed by one of the world’s leading authorities on geniuses—he just picked up the Nobel Prize in economics along with fellow American Lloyd Shapley.

That he is also wise in the ways of love is perhaps less well-known.

Al Roth
Al Roth and family. ()

Your spouse, Al once told me, “is someone with whom you’re going to be lovers and friends and parents together, and each other’s closest confidant, most unconditional ally, and most devoted historian.”

The italics are mine, so you don’t overlook how damn romantic this guy is.

I was researching a book, and I’d asked Roth whether game theory, the study of strategic thinking, has a place in marriage—whether it could, for example, get a person out of doing the dishes. He told me I was missing the point. 


“Marriage is a dynamic game that you play over a lifetime,” he said. Meaning, you shouldn’t think of marriage in terms of winning or losing. And you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff.

In a photo Roth sent me of his family, he’s standing behind his wife, Emilie, and next to his two sons. They’re all smiling, and judging from the menorah on the mantle, it’s Chanukah. The whole scene makes me want to be part of the Roth family.

None of this is what won him the Nobel, of course. He got that for his work in the field of “market design”—work that has improved people’s lives in other ways. Roth’s matching algorithms have helped New York City kids get into good high schools, placed medical students into residency programs and, most astonishingly, gotten more than 1,000 kidneys to patients awaiting transplants.

But when I think of Alvin Roth, I’ll always think about love. And he’s not the only economist whose advice on dating and marriage I would take over Dr. Phil’s. When I was writing my book on this very topic (a book you can buy here, and which will forever change your life for the better), I interviewed dozens of economists and asked them intimate details about their love lives. Their sex lives, too. I learned a lot in the process.

Thanks to Betsey Stevenson, for example, I no longer put on sweatpants the minute I get home from work. Stevenson and her partner Justin Wolfers (they’ve never gotten married, because what’s the point?) are both University of Michigan economists who think a lot about the overlap between love relationships and economics. “In truth I think that both people in a partnership should take a moment to refocus our energy and be ready to fully engage with our partners and family members when we head home at the end of the day,” said Stevenson. “And sometimes this does mean that I put on lipstick. But I know that Justin also pops a Listerine strip on his way home.”

Jeff Ely, a game theorist at Northwestern, has traded massages for housework and writes his wife romantic anniversary blog posts. I have done neither, but I aspire to both.

Seth Gitter, of Towson University, shared this equation with me:

Marriage Happiness = Sethhappiness* Mariehappiness

His wife, Marie, is a lucky girl. Seth cooks her tacos and makes sure to fully remove the film over the sour-cream containers, the way she likes. This kind of thing—doing something small even if you don’t want to do it because you know your spouse will appreciate it—is, in my completely unscientific opinion, a sign that your marriage is healthier than most. It’s why I put fabric-softener sheets in the dryer even though I think they’re stupid. Economists call this a signal—in this case, a signal that you’re listening and you care. (Just don’t roll your eyes while you’re doing it.)

Think about it: when was the last time you thought your partner did too many chores?

Ray Fisman is an economist at Columbia who has done a fair bit of research on speed dating. Early in our writing, my co-author and I took Fisman out to lunch at a fancy pizza place in Manhattan. We tried to get him to admit that you can use economics to solve marriage problems, and to give us some concrete examples. He was very resistant, and we felt very stupid. But we must have charmed him, because he kept returning our phone calls and emails, and in one interview, told us how something called self-serving bias—in which we interpret facts in a self-serving way—has cropped up in his marriage. “Knowing that we’re all vulnerable to this allows me to remain quietly indignant about the fact that I do way more than 50 percent of household work,” he said, “while recognizing that my wife is deluded into genuinely believing that she is more than pulling her weight as well.”

Self-serving bias really struck a chord. My husband and I are pretty good at feeling like we each bear the bigger brunt of the work. But the math doesn’t add up. At least one of us has to be wrong.

Think about it: When was the last time you thought your partner did too many chores around the house? Or that you weren’t pulling your weight?

Speaking of, when was the last time you thought you were having too much sex? If you are married, you might not have had that thought in a long, long, long time. In which case, maybe you should take some pointers from economist Daniel Hamermesh, who has been happily married for decades. He says the following: “The theory of addiction, as I interpret/explain it, is based on there being a greater marginal utility of beginning something in each sequence if one has engaged in more of it in the past.”

Translation: The more sex you have, the more sex you want. That’s what I call a Nobel-worthy solution.