Forgiveness, Tit for Tat, and the Coase Theorem

by on November 1, 2012 at 9:23 am in Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Forgiveness reduces the price of transgression; or, demand curves slope down. As discussed by the WSJ:

…research shows forgiveness has a dark side. At first it may help the person who has been hurt to let go of anger, resentment and desire for revenge. But forgiving also may encourage the transgressor to do it again.

Jim McNulty, a psychology professor at Florida State University…found that the day after forgiving a partner, people were 6.5 times more likely to report that the partner had again done something negative, compared with when there was no forgiveness.

… “The potential cost of forgiveness is that it doesn’t hold the partner accountable for the behavior,” Dr. McNulty says.

If you find yourself forgiving your partner a lot then something is wrong but forgiving is not always the wrong strategy. What should you do? Tit for tat looks good in the cooperative equilibrium but can go badly wrong with error and mistake. That’s one reason why it’s good to forgive error and even the occasional transgression if you think you can get back on track.

In another study, people who forgave nice partners remained happy with their marriages, while people who forgave not-so-nice partners became less happy.

Tit for tat seems draconian, however, because you really shouldn’t model a marriage as a prisoner’s dilemma.

My own approach is to think of the Coase theorem. Assume that you can’t redistribute happiness or wealth within the marriage. If your spouse is unhappy you will be unhappy and if your spouse is happy you are likely to be happy; happy wife, happy life. If you can’t redistribute happiness the play to make is to maximize total happiness. Maximizing total happiness means accepting apparent reductions in happiness when those result in even larger increases in happiness for your spouse. If you maximize the total, however, there will be more to go around and the reductions will usually be temporary.

revver November 1, 2012 at 9:54 am

“Maximizing total happiness means accepting apparent reductions in happiness when those result in even larger increases in happiness for your spouse.” “Tit for tat seems draconian, however, because you really shouldn’t model a marriage as a prisoner’s dilemma.”
What’s Draconian are the the misandric child custody and family court laws which have poisoned modern marriage beyond recognition. The wife holds the cards in modern America.

Bill November 1, 2012 at 10:01 am

Tit for Tat works when you know, for sure, that the other party intended some action, or that you were properly interpreting the action or signal, ie, you weren’t yourself being sensitive to a non-event, and thereby made it an event. Tit for Tat works when when there are clear, definable boundaries; not when the boundaries are subject to interpretation.

Sometimes its a good idea not to apply game theory to every personal relationship you may, and ultimately may not, have.

Life is too short.

Tit for Tat tolerance might be the better answer.

TGGP November 1, 2012 at 9:43 pm

See Bryan Caplan on trembling hand perfect equilibrium.

TuringTest November 1, 2012 at 10:11 am

GenerousTFT or Nowak’s “win-stay lose-shift” strategy do better than pure TFT in noisy environments. Maximizing happiness is just too ill-defined to be of any use

Todd November 1, 2012 at 10:19 am

Ah, romance, thy name is Marginal Revolution

“To get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.” – Mark Twain

Nylund November 1, 2012 at 11:23 am

The Twain quote reminds me of the end of “Into the Wild” as he lays there dying by himself, thinking of all the places he went, and he writes, “happiness is only real when shared.”

Wonks Anonymous November 1, 2012 at 10:23 am

Jimmy McNulty, where have I heard of that repeat offender before?

jimmu November 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm

What the fuck did I do?

anon November 1, 2012 at 10:28 am

RSA Animate: The Truth About Dishonesty
http://youtu.be/XBmJay_qdNc

The Catholics were right all along….

Peter November 2, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Anon: Just watched that and the problem is you’re still a liar. Just because you rationalize it and can look yourself in the mirror doesn’t make it any less so. That is one of the major problems i have with modern society, this push towards everything is OK if you can rationalize it.

Heath White November 1, 2012 at 10:33 am

“you really shouldn’t model a marriage as a prisoner’s dilemma”

Words to live by.

AC November 1, 2012 at 10:53 am

Forgiving can be selfish defection from social enforcement protocols.

Also: conspicuous forgiving and dislike of shaming/exclusion are meta-defection

8 November 1, 2012 at 11:09 am

I forgive you this time, but next time I will bitch slap you into next Tuesday.

Ray November 1, 2012 at 11:15 am

The key to a long relationship is to say you’re sorry every day.

8 November 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm

More likely the key to a divorce, if you’re a man.

MD November 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Yeah I drank the last of the milk without buying more! What are you going to do about it!

anon November 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm

If you are saying that you are sorry every day and your spouse never says that they are sorry, there is a problem.

MD November 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm

We both say sorry when the situation calls for it, but when it does not we usually don’t.

Watchmaker November 1, 2012 at 11:21 am

Similarly, maximizing total happiness means dishing out apparent reductions in happiness to your spouse when those result in even larger increases in happiness for yourself. No reason to be strictly selfless.

Tracy W November 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Well this makes sense. For example, imagine a friend consults you for advice. Their spouse wants them to go fishing, but they really hate fishing. Probably, you’d say, stay at home and tell your spouse to take a friend.

Bill November 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Emotional redistributionalist.

What would Ayn Rand say.

Ryan November 1, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Correct. Or for the layman, compromise. Comprise is not inherently re-distributional either.

RPLong November 1, 2012 at 11:30 am

Tit for tat is an idiotic strategy to relationships. You’ll never solve any problem by contributing to it.

I look at a relationship as a joint investment. Both parties invest, and both parties earn a return. If one person invests more than the other person, then the investment is clearly owned disproportionately by one person and this calls for a renegotiation of terms. If one person withdraws more than the other person, then the investment is clearly benefitting one person disproportionately, and this also calls for a renegotiation of the terms. But, so long as both parties contribute as much as they can, all the time, then their investment will earn huge returns for both of them.

Forgiveness is an investment. Requiring forgiveness is a withdrawal. Once, twice, or a few times spread out over a long time are not going to mess up the overall investment strategy. But if one or both people are always making big withdrawals or always being asked to make big investments, then it compromises the soundness of the investment. That’s when things go badly.

chuck martel November 1, 2012 at 11:41 am

Have computers made the accounting on this matter easier or is it just as simple to use an old-fashioned ledger?

RPLong November 1, 2012 at 11:46 am

The purpose of an analogy is to clarify a concept, not provide a literal demonstration of it.

scott cunningham November 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Poo! Everyone knows that you good marriage partners play grim! (said no one anywhere)

Cliff Styles November 1, 2012 at 11:33 am

This kind of reasoning, offered seemingly without irony or satire, is the main reason I abandoned economics.

Nylund November 1, 2012 at 11:39 am

Can you extend those thoughts on happiness redistribution to groups larger than the couple?

For example, if an action in the workplace is in my personal best interest, but makes my co-workers miserable, does their miserableness affect my work-life? Will it make me dread going to work? What about friends? Extended family? Even strangers in your town? It seems to me that this would hold true for many people outside of your marriage, not just your spouse, with the degree of the effect (and how possible happiness redistribution is) conditional on your level of interaction.

It may even be somewhat transferable across people. For example: when my wife’s boss is miserable, it makes my wife miserable. When my wife is miserable, I’m miserable. My wife acts as a conduit between her boss’s unhappiness and mine.

Joshua November 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm

In Christianity, you’re not bloodless unconditionally forgiven so much as forgiven through immense pain and suffering by Jesus. It’s tit for tat all on one side, as the forgiver is also the one who suffered for the transgression. So Jesus assumes a consequence of that forgiveness, the one who is forgiven much loves much, and a requirement that those who are forgiven must also forgives those that hurt them.

Those who feel the emptiness of forgiveness can’t do so if they see the vicarious punishment on Jesus for the person they are forgiving or the inevitable wrath in he’ll for that person if they never change (or repent, perhaps by extension feel the weight of their offense as borne by Jesus).

It’s an interesting problem and one I reckon the New Testament spends much ink addressing.

Pete November 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Jesus died to forgive me for leaving the toilet seat up?

Urso November 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Fascinating question. If you did so, knowing that it would cause pain to your wife, is that a sin, theologically speaking? It is (I assume) a sin if you did it specifically in order to cause pain to your wife. But what if you just did it lazily. The concept of sin does not, and cannot, account for everything we do that causes anyone else any kind of marginal inconvenience. Where is the line drawn?

Brian Donohue November 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, no?

Joshua November 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm

“Matthew 5:38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’g 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Does that qualify as marginal inconvenience? I’d argue the New Testament makes the case that our sin against God is great that it makes everything else a minor in comparison. So in a sense, that is the sin that matters and all the others are the effects of that sin. It’s not so much “did Jesus die to forgive me for leaving the toilet seat up?” as “Jesus died to forgive me for rebellion against God, so how can I hold something so small against someone else?”

Matthew 18:23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24“When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25“But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26“So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27“And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29“So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30“But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31“So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32“Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33‘Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34“And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Go Kings, Go November 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm

You forgive so you don’t carry the hurt inside; when you carry the hurt, you unleash it on others. That is why people are hurling so much hurt around the world. I heard the Dalai Lama say words to that affect and advise that you forgive to extinguish the hurt. It seems persuasive.

So Much for Subtlety November 1, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Which is the problem with this study. They are relying on self reporting for the forgiveness. Which, as I am sure anyone who has been in a relationship knows, means the wife “forgives” you but spends the next week searching for some trivial issue to get mad about. Because she hasn’t. It is just a social convention to pretend she has and so she can feel like a virtuous person.

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dirk November 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm

“If you can’t redistribute happiness the play to make is to maximize total happiness. Maximizing total happiness means accepting apparent reductions in happiness when those result in even larger increases in happiness for your spouse.”

This is all short-run thinking and may be the worst possible strategy for the long-run. According to Roissy, if you are too eager to please your wife in the short-run, she’s going to lose interest in you as a man in the long run.

“If your spouse is unhappy you will be unhappy and if your spouse is happy you are likely to be happy; happy wife, happy life.”

That is obviously a worthless observation since it’s not clear which way the causation runs. Roissy argues cogently that the causation of happiness in a relationship runs form man to woman. I don’t know if he is correct, but his arguments sound much more reasonable and conform more strongly with observed cases than most any argument to the contrary.

Alex Tabarrok November 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm

dirk and Peter (below) misunderstand. See Watchmakers comment above on what maximizing the total means.

GiT November 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Is there a non-gated treatment of this study? I’d like to look it over, possibly send to a friend in a relevant situation, but the WSJ paywall has got me.

Peter November 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm

The real problem here can be summed up with “happy wife, happy life” which is why more and more men are checking out of this game. Maybe the other half of the relationship should take this one to heart with “happy husband, happy life”.

What you are saying (and I think reality plays out) is “Men: For the most of you you will be unhappy married and unhappy single, pick your poison. If being treated as an untermensch the rest of your is OK with you, drive on. If not, learn to enjoy being single and minimize the damage to the best you can in a divorce, hopefully you didn’t have too many children, they are older, and you don’t have many assets”.

msgkings November 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Except married men report themselves much happier than married women, and than single men.

Roissy, meet data. Data, Roissy.

Peter November 1, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I don’t disagree hence “pick your poison”. That being said would love to see a report on total happiness as opposed to “happier”. Being miserably married might be happier than extremely miserably single but that doesn’t mean you’re happy, just happier. I would like to see the happiness numbers as a percentage of “Married and Happy” v. percentage of “Unmarried (by choice) and Happy” .. I mention “by choice” as I want to weed out those who are simply lonely, i.e. ofc their unhappy as they want to be married and in centuries past they would have been (i.e. omega man marries omega woman).

So Much for Subtlety November 1, 2012 at 7:37 pm

They report themselves. They may be following a social convention. More to the point, they may shortly thereafter get divorced and that will change the way they remember their marriage. You can’t really rely on self reporting nor can you just look at men at one point in time. After all, single men are a useless category in themselves as that includes the never married and the bitter from divorce. You may not be comparing like groups – married men may include a lot of people who married in, say, 1964. Wives were different back then. Young girls have different behaviors and expectations. You can’t compare what was on offer from marriage in 1964 with what is on offer today.

ShaneM November 1, 2012 at 8:33 pm

compare single but previously married with single and never married. I’d think there’d be differences.

Brian Donohue November 1, 2012 at 11:30 pm

“Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.”

foojim November 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Alex, your logic is extremely unclear. You should maximize total happiness only if you CAN redistribute happiness. If you can’t redistribute happiness, and you can’t control your partner’s strategy, then maximizing total happiness is not a nash equilibrium – your partner gets more utility for him/herself by being selfish, as do you.

Tit for tat with some forgiveness gives you a credible threat, should your partner stop maximizing total happiness. So the outcome is both partners look like they are maximizing total happiness, but really both are playing tit for tat in the good equilibrium.

Mike November 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm

I prefer to think of my wife’s happiness as a maximum upon my own, and mine a maximum upon hers. We both seem to be pretty happy, and pretty happy together.

Kitty_T November 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm

“Maximizing total happiness means accepting apparent reductions in happiness when those result in even larger increases in happiness for your spouse. If you maximize the total, however, there will be more to go around and the reductions will usually be temporary.”

My strategy as well, and expressed in an oddly lovely fashion. I plan to show this to my husband to demonstrate the romance of economics!

Doug November 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm

I thought Freeman Dyson recently demonstrated that Tit for Tat was shown to be easily defeatable by agents with a theory of mind?

If your spouse is not an automaton t4t will not work.

Anonymous coward November 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Coase Theorem does not apply in this case. There is nothing to stop one of the spouses from hurting the other on purpose instead of accidentally.

TGGP November 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm

I don’t know if David Friedman has responded to Szabo yet, but Johnnie Lin has.

Anonymous coward November 2, 2012 at 8:14 am

No he hasn’t, and you admitted as much in the comments there:

> teageegeepea Says:

> February 1, 2011 at 7:23 pm

> When I said “response”, I meant to my comments. I doubt Lin had read your blog at the time he wrote that paper.

I looked at the paper, but I’m not good enough at translating economics-model-speak into human language to compare it to Nick’s arguments (which I think are very reasonable).

Tom November 2, 2012 at 7:20 am

If you’re married to a good person, lots of forgiveness — but with the threat of leaving for Big Mistakes (infidelity, mostly).

If married to a not so nice person, Tit For Tat — like dealing with a bully. When they hurt you, you hurt them, so next time they find somebody else to hurt. Long term, they stop hurting you so much. Ya, maybe it was mistake to marry that one, but at least you’re getting the hot sex you signed up for, at first.

I think there’s a few thousand songs, most of them Country or R&B, about these very real issues.

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