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The Game Theory of Marriage

Game theory is one of those mathematical concepts that, once you have discovered it, you seem to see everywhere in your life. There are the classic examples of the prisoner’s dilemma and soccer penalty kicks, and even global examples in economics and warfare. In 2011, author Paula Szuchman broke down how game theory invades even the most intimate parts of our lives.


In It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes, Szuchman argues that most of the conflicts that arise between a married couple can be treated quite successfully as game theory problems. She started off by asking married couples what the most difficult part of their marriage was. All their answers had to do with cooperation and “agreeing to disagree”. She basically broke down everyday squabbles, like being in a standoff about who should do the grocery shopping this week, and showed how payoffs are things like romantic dinners or controlling the TV. Married couples eventually fall into a Nash Equilibrium where they are both compromising a little bit to resolve their conflict and remain happy.


The most interesting part of the book is that if couples understand that they are behaving according to traditional game theory logic, they can actually end fights more easily and more amicably. In the same way that professional soccer players obey mixed-strategy equilibrium intuitively, so can married couples strategize by remembering how their spouse has reacted in the past and empathizing with what they might be feeling now. If couples take it one step further and actually “devise incentives” like having to take out the garbage if you refuse to go grocery shopping, then they will be “more motivated to cooperate than to have the last word.”


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September 2015