Chocolate and Gold Coins

Monday, August 08, 2005

Marriage as a Repeated Game

One of the major results of non-cooperative game theory is that if two people have to play the same game over and over forever (till death do us part), then it is perfectly rational for the player to cooperate. Consider the classic Prisoner’s dilemma game. If both players cooperate, they each get $100. If one defects and the other cooperates, the defector gets an extra $30 but the other guy loses $60. If they both defect, they each get $70. The following list shows the possible outcomes:

  1. (c,c): ($100,$100)

  2. (d,c): ($130, $40)

  3. (c,d): ( $40,$130)

  4. (d,d): ( $70, $70)

Clearly, playing “defect” is not nice.

What if one of the players plays “defect”? The other player needs to punish him by playing “defect” until the first player cooperates. But, in the real world, what if it isn’t entirely clear who was the first player to play “defect”? Then cooperation may never happen again, and that’s really a pity.

Marriage can be like this. In the beginning, the husband and the wife cooperate naturally. But then, once in a while, one or the other does something selfish. Maybe it is minor, like leaving socks on the floor or forgetting to make the bed. At first the spouse might be forgiving, but then over time the instinct to “punish” the spouse becomes overwhelming. The aggrieved spouse might yell, or might give the dreaded “silent treatment”.

My wife views this blog as a sort of “defection”. It only benefits me, (she never reads it), and it represents time that could have been spent doing things that my whole family could enjoy instead of just me. Now, my wife does not mean that I must do everything for the good of the entire family, but in the margin, an extra hour of blogging is an hour lost to family activities: gardening, home improvement, family fun.

My wife read my emails. She cannot understand why so many of my readers who write emails are from India. She especially disliked this one email, “Who’s this Swati? Why is she flirting with you!” “Oh, Swati is a girl?” I asked innocently.

The bottom line: either I find a really good reason for my wife to like my blog or I will have to drastically reduce my blogging. Maybe I can work out some kind of deal with her: I do X, Y, and Z and she’s let me spend 10 hours a week blogging. Or maybe I can figure out some plausible way that one could get rich blogging, (seriously, someone will figure it out).

In any case, I don’t dare let her think that I am playing “defect” in the hopes that she will give up and let me do as I please. Some couples start the “defect, defect” option and never stop. It happens all the time. I must cooperate.

I know someone who started playing the “defect, defect” option with her sister. She tells me, “I miss her, but I cannot ignore what she said to me.” Apparently her sister feels the same way. Apparently, they will play the “defect, defect” forever. It seems a great pity; they were so close. But at least I can learn from that example.

Update: The always excellent Acorn, by Nitin Pai, links to this piece.


  • Hi Michael
    You elucidate the predicament of a great many of us so very well. After mowing the lawn, clearing the weeds and attending to the young un, here I am reposed on the couch, getting my two bit in before I'm percieved as "defecting". All this for having fritted away the weekend, not according to me, playing a volleyball tournament. Business trips help in that respect, to catch up of stuff that otherwise would have been construed as sheer waste of time viz. blogging.
    And Swati flirts with you too ??? :))) J/K

    By Blogger chappan, at 8:41 PM  

  • Very well said! And I am kinda shocked to see that your theory fits (more) perfectly to my life (recently) than something I could have come up with! And it is also a relief to know that I am not the only one - for better or worse!

    By Blogger Squared, at 8:50 PM  

  • Good one Michael! My husband watches TV a lot and I don't (especially when I don't have control of the remote, which is never). So when he's on the couch, I make my way to the computer. Blogging is much, much better than sitting on the couch and fuming!

    By Blogger Sujatha, at 8:57 PM  

  • Hi Sourin and Squared
    Sourin: It does seem to me that it is more likely that the guys will be the perceived "defectors" and the gals will be the "punishers". I never punish my wife, (well, not intentionally).

    Squared: No, you're not the only one. But, let me tell you, it help you one bit that others are like you. If your wife/girlfriend is in "punishment mode" then the only strategy is to beg for forgiveness, (even if you don't know exactly what you did).

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 9:09 PM  

  • Hi Suj
    You're husband is one of those remote hogs? My wife always has the remote. I never like what she watches. For years I had to watch the silly stuff she likes (I watched more 90210 than I ever wanted to watch). I would much rather blog. But my wife fumes if I leave her alone downstairs. Perhaps a compromise will be for me to blog while she watches T.V.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 9:16 PM  

  • Michael - We play the prisoners dillema as part of one of our corporate trainings and I have conducted this game in many a sessions while conducting the sessions and explained the intended pupose a zillion times... but never thought about it in this angle -- the marriage stuff...

    Nice twist to it.

    As for the marriage or rather any personal relationship ... i always think that it is all about adjustment and not punishment. You keep changing roles and over time you just gel so perfectly...

    By Blogger @mit, at 10:33 PM  

  • Or Michael, you could get your wife to blog - now that would be a coup of sorts... then you can look at each other's blog emails and comments and compare notes :)
    or maybe it would just make things worse - one more angle to it, not just cooperate and defect but compete?!

    By Anonymous Charu, at 1:54 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Vikram A., at 2:44 AM  

  • Hi Michael,

    You have a great talent of incorporating economic principles into everday life occurrences. I think you must have been a very good TA when you were in college.

    If your wife wants you to be with her while she is watching TV, but you want to blog instead, you could ask her to get you a laptop. Then you would be cooperating and you would end up with a nice gadget.


    By Blogger Vikram A., at 2:44 AM  

  • Michael,

    Good one. My wife agrees. ;-)

    By Blogger Nitin, at 3:37 AM  

  • Hi @mit, Charu, Vikram, and Nitin
    Nitin: Thanks for the link. I appreciated it. I think Acorn is a great blog.

    @mit: Obviously, marriage is a complex game of give and take. You need to allow your partner some space. But you need to draw the line as well. I've been a bad about neglecting my wife's desire to improve our wonderful new home. I will make amends.

    Charu: My wife has complete contempt of blogging. She cannot understand why someone would take precious time and do something that looks like work and not get paid 6 figures for it. But if she did write a blog, she would definitely trounce me. She is excellent at everything she does.

    Vikram: I have thought about that and maybe we will do that soon. We need to have a special wireless modem and a wireless card installed in our laptop (or a new laptop). This might happen soon.

    But then again, maybe I don't want my wife looking over my shoulder as I blog. She will ask, "Who is this Sujatha, this Charukesi, this Uma, and why are they commenting on your blog?" The fact that they are all married and living 10,000 miles away might not matter much to her.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:32 AM  

  • WOW! What a response and feedback! I like such blogs...

    I do not blame anyone's wife over here and the reason is that they are different from us (remember, Venus and Mars. If you help them, they are happy - if you talk about it to them, we have not done any great...we are supposed to do it!!!

    So, let's be calm, maintain peace have truce and just request one thing to our wives...WE NEED SOME QUIET TIME!!!

    By Blogger Anshul, at 8:11 AM  

  • Michael....though craving to say a lot, I dare not say anything....

    By Blogger Sunil, at 10:17 AM  

  • Nice one! I am new to the blog world and was basically scouting for good blogs to read. Yours is truly amazing:-)

    By Blogger Tugga, at 1:26 PM  

  • Hi Sunil, Anshul, and Tugga
    Sunil: Does this post hit too close to home for comfort?

    Anshul: Thanks for kind words. Yes, I like a little quiet time. But my wife thinks two hours a week is adequate. I don't think I could create this blog on two hours per week.

    Tugga: Thanks for the kind words. Warning: blogging can be addictive.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:59 PM  

  • Michael,
    You have a knack of taking economic theories and applying them to day2day situations. Excellent post!

    I have a devious idea, you have to play this carefully though.

    Start playing small defect-defect games with yr wife. Then for no good reason one Fri morning start playing the "best-cooperative" husband. Be co-operative for the weekend..then again move back ..and forth & so on. All the while keep changing the timing/frequency of yr switch. Don't overdo it.

    I played this all the while with my younger bro in my childhood days. I sure beat the crap out of him. The best part is sometimes you'll be rewarded even when you are playing defect and vice-versa :-) And sometimes there will be prolonged periods of rewards/punishments irrespective of what you are playing. Overall, law of averages catches up!

    I think it's better this way. Will surely add some zing to the daily humdrum of yr wifeTV-husbandBlog life. Let me know how it goes. You are my first client. We can finetune the game based on yr results :-)

    I am not a lawyer - though my idea sounds like it's coming from a divorce lawyer. Read the fineprint in yr prenuptials before playing this. If things go downhill, I hope she won't blame you for flirting with 'Suhail' ;)

    By Blogger Suhail, at 6:40 PM  

  • Nice post!
    One thing that really catches my eye..
    Your views on the "silent treatment" are quite true. It becomes quite frustrating when all communication suddenly breaks down, and sometimes, this could go on for days-on-end! Maybe arguments turn out to be a better solution, since a lot of issues tend to get settled then and there.
    An alternate but undesirable outcome is also the "silent treatment" which comes after the argument.. Hehe.. worst of both worlds, eh?

    Keep writing!

    By Blogger Sandeep, at 10:27 PM  

  • Hi Suhail and Sandeep
    Suhail: defect-defect is dangerous. I'm blogging on thin ice as it is.

    Sandeep: Ah, yes, the silent treatment - it's torture. But it is very effective in my case. Maybe that is why my wife uses it.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:09 AM  

  • Should I? Shouldn't I? Write a long comment, that is.

    But, today, I really shouldn't, because, today happens to be that one day of the week in which I cooperate ;-)

    Nice post, Michael!

    By Blogger Abi, at 4:51 AM  

  • Hi Michael,

    Came here through and Saurabh's(Tugga) blog.

    The post is interesting and have to go through the entire archives for some more interesting read.

    I think it takes a special knack to link "principles and theories" to simple happenings in life.

    Great blog:-)

    By Blogger Minal, at 3:18 AM  

  • excellent comments to a great post! I am not married so I do not share your pain yet :) but I can understand

    By Blogger Patrix, at 5:11 PM  

  • Hi Abi, Minal, and Patrix
    Abi: Thanks.

    Minal: Thanks fro the kind words. I hope you and Abi come back.

    Patrix: You're lucky in that Ash is also a blogger and completely supportive of your obsession. The rest of need therapy I think. :)

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 10:35 PM  

  • Hi Michael,
    After re-reading my previous comment, I think maybe I went a bit too far. But I was just playing a bit naughty. I didn't really mean all that. Hope you didn't mind.

    Having said that, I like the phrase "blogging on thin ice" :-)

    By Blogger Suhail, at 7:58 PM  

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