Friday, September 11, 2009


I’m returning, briefly, to the subject of the endowment effect. If you want more background before I get to a new point, see the two blog entries below by just searching “endowment” and you’ll get right to them. Then, come back here for the latest thought.

I’m re-reading Tim Harford’s book, The Logic of Life. As I mentioned in an earlier blog (Stuck on You), I really like this book a lot. In the earlier sections of the book, he covers issues directly related to the theme of this blog about relationships and commitment. He covers things like reasons for the greatly increased practice of oral sex among teens. And it, depressingly, makes a lot of sense. He also covers phenomena such as the way the partnering options are affected by how many people exist in your community who you’d be interested in versus how many other people like you are interested in those same people: for example, how it skews things when you live in a city where there are many more single females versus males. Numbers affect things.

Early on in the book, Harford covers some research on the endowment effect that I had missed before. While there is tons of evidence that the endowment effect operates on all of us, it affects people the least who have the most experience buying/selling/trading in that market. He cites a study where a researcher named List did a study at a Pin swap meet. Apparently, there are enough people around who are very interested in all manner of pins (you know, like what you might pick up when you travel to Niagra Falls to commemorate your experience) that there are who swap meets among collectors. In this study Harford cites, the researcher did the classic type of endowment effect study—he gave people something they did not already have and then examined how much it would take to get them to part with it. Here is the bottom line. People who were very experienced pin traders were much more willing to part with the pin they just received in exchange for another. They had become less rapidly attached to the pin they just received than others who had less experience. In essence, the experienced people did not overvalue a new pin just because one was just given to them.

Relationship application time. I’ve seen this illustration used before where someone will liken the way people attach to romantic partners to duct tape. Crude, yes; relative, also yes. Imagine someone taking two pieces of duct tape and sticking them together (sticky sides together) and pulling them apart, over and over and over again. You’d not be surprised that the tape becomes less sticky overtime. The stickiness wears out. Now, think romantic relationships. There are a number of scholars (and others) who believe that having a great many romantic relationships might wear down one’s ability to attach. If I apply this point about the endowment effect above, I get this theory. People who have had a lot of romantic (and sexual) partners may be at greater risk of coming to a point where they do not overvalue the person they are with now. That makes sense and may not be as big of a deal if one is still searching for a solid match of a partner.

Imagine how this might affect someone once they have found “the one,” the person they want to spend the rest of their time with. I’m all for thinking realistically in relationships, but only to a point. There might be something pretty valuable in being able to consistently overvalue your mate: to think they are the best thing since sliced bread and you’d not trade them for anyone. It could be that churning through too many romantic partners earlier in life might make it harder to have that way of seeing one’s mate that may help keep commitment strong.

Maybe staying sticky is a pretty good reason to go slower and more carefully in how one approaches the dating and mating part of life.