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I recently read this great book by Dan Ariely (a researcher in behavioural economics) called “Predictably Irrational” and one of the chapters was especially interesting: The Cost of Social Norms: Why we are Happy to Do Things but Not When We are Paid to Do Them”

Social Norms

Social norms are actions among friends or people you are close to, not based on money.  For example, if a friend asks you to help move their belongings you help them out because you’re a good friend, and you don’t expect anything in return.  It is implied that your friend will return the favour somehow but not in a specific time frame (but you won’t keep track of that because it would be socially unacceptable to do so).

Market Norms

Market norms are actions that are based on traditional economics.  You pay for something therefore you expect to get something of quality for the amount you spent on it.  You expect something of equal value for what your paying for it.  Money is involved and it is a transaction.

Social and Market Norms Mixing

He argues that we are happy to do things to put deposits (figuratively speaking) in the bank of a relationship but when given a monetary value to it, then it causes damage to the relationship.

An example that Ariely gives is when you go over to your mother in law’s house and she cooks you a delicious meal, then you take your wallet out and ask her how much you owe her for that delicious meal.

Another example was when a friend was upset at me about something else and ended up saying that coming to our wedding was costing her X number of dollars because it was quite a far distance to go.  She mixed market norms and social norms and put a dollar amount on our friendship which really hurt.  I have since forgiven and forgotten and brushed it off but at the time it was quite hurtful and I could not identify why it was hurtful until after learning about market and social norms.

Dating and Market and Social Norms

Another example is when, after a few dates, you tell a woman you’re dating how much the date is costing you, and you’re wondering when you can lean in for that first kiss.  If you tell your date how much the first few dates are costing you, you won’t be leaning in for that first kiss—guaranteed!

That’s because even though many women expect that the guy usually pays on the first date, they do so because they want to feel courted and they are interested in the guy.  Usually, when a woman is not interested in the guy then they would make more of an attempt to split or alternate bills so that they feel like they don’t “owe” them (the social norm of courtship).

That being said, I wasn’t more attracted to someone who spent a ton of money on a date personally (one guy took me to a nice concert on the first date with floor seats, but it didn’t make me want to go out with him more).  In fact, I think that dating shouldn’t cost very much.  In fact, my husband took me to McDonald’s on our third date, haha, and I ended up marrying him!  Mind you, I love eating McDonald’s from time to time.

Online Dating in a Way Mixes Market and Social Norms

To me, online dating, in a way, mixes market and social norms.  When you are inundated with choice, with certain attributes that you erroneously think might make them more compatible with yourself (e.g. astrological sign, height, whether they like walks on the beach or going out for drinks) you start to think that the market for dating is large and you are then faced with the paradox of too much choice.

Some of my friends who are online dating right now feel this way.  That the amount of choice is overwhelming and you get this feeling that there are better fish in the sea or other options.  Nonetheless, I know there are many couples out there who met online.  I suppose it is up to the person who is dating online to realize that they have met someone special and to stop thinking there is something else out there.

Here is a Youtube clip by Dan Ariely himself talking about the market and social norms colliding and why they don’t mix.

Readers, what do you think?  Have you had instances where social norms and market norms end up colliding?

Article comments

1 comment
Gerald says:

Rather interesting read! If you consider for a moment the high percentage of marriages that end in divorce and how money always pops up, certainly food for thought. Thanks!