Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stuck On You: Arbitrary Coherence

I see psychology as one of the cheerier social sciences. Of course, I’m biased. What many see as the dismal (social) science is the field of economics. Both fields study human behavior, often at different levels, but sometimes on the same level—that of the individual.

At the individual level, economists have found a very intriguing and reliable pattern that they call “arbitrary coherence.” (Like any good scientists, they come up with fancy names for what they study and talk about. Bravo fellow geekoids.) Arbitrary coherence occurs when we are exposed to a price for something and that price sort of sticks (coheres) in our minds. The price can be (and often is) arbitrary, hence the term, but once the price is out there and gets stuck into our heads, we come to expect that price to be THE price, and we value things based on this original, somewhat arbitrary set point.

This principle has been confirmed in many ingenious studies. It’s also why marketers will try to get you hooked on a higher price than the one they are planning to get you to pay for something. That higher price is an important part of the strategy because it becomes your comparison so that the price they hope to get you to pay starts looking good to you. The one becomes your reference point, and then you use that reference point to evaluate the other.

How could this principle apply to relationships? While it may seem crass, it’s very easy to apply market thinking to relationship dynamics—especially in the mating game but also in ongoing relationships like marriage. This has been done a lot in the field of economics, with a preeminent example being the work of Gary Becker who has applied economic thinking to family relationships. (For a particularly fascinating, recent treatment of such issues, I recommend one of my favorite, popular books written by an economist: Steve Harford’s, The Logic of Life. It contains some brutally honest discussions of things like changes in sexual relationships of teens or what happens to dating/mating dynamics in cities where there are more people of one sex than the other.)

I think about how experiences in relationships and cultural messages “set the price” or worth of people in the relationship market. In other words, who can attract and hang onto who, and for how long. Starting with family experiences and then accelerating into dating and longer-term relationships, a person’s experiences with others must play a major role in determining their own sense of their worth to others. If one experiences a series of painful rejections (is there any other kind?) or ends up having to give up a lot of what they value (or what their values are) to attract others, those things will impact how one sees the self.

All of this creates another commercial for the value of making decisions in relationships rather than just letting things happen. The whole idea of arbitrary coherence implies that our set points about worth and value become automatic and unexamined but, nevertheless, effect what happens to us—what we’re going after, what we’re willing to accept, what we accept and should not, and so forth. Deciding gives us a better shot at setting our own price on what we value and who we will be.

* Update on 7-25-13.  There is a post I wrote later in this year (2009) that makes for a great follow-up to this piece.  Check it out at: