Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in July, 2004

Economics of orgasms

Dear Economist,
I love my partner, but he does not always satisfy me in bed. Sometimes I fake my orgasms – is this wrong?
— Ms C.H., Nottinghamshire

Dear Ms C.H.,
Economics doctoral student Hugo Mialon argues that you need to analyse this as a two-player signalling game. You have two choices – fake, or be honest about the earth’s failure to move. (Mialon comments helpfully: “faking is the strategy of a devoted girlfriend or courtesan, depending on whether the intent is to spare feelings or gain favours”.)When you appear to be enjoying yourself, your partner also has two choices: to believe you, or not.

The strategy Mialon advises depends on the intensity of your love, and on how likely you are to be enjoying yourself anyway, which in his model is a function of your age. His conclusion: the more you love your partner, and the further you are from 30 (the age at which your partner expects your capacity for orgasm to be greatest), the more you should fake.

I have to confess I found it all extremely complicated. I discussed it with my wife, but that didn’t seem to help anybody very much. Yet, several of Mialon’s ideas have been supported by data from the 2000 Orgasm Survey. (Presumably, the name is chronological rather than quantitative.)

After much reflection I finally located my doubts: in Mialon’s model, orgasms themselves are exogenous. The players cannot simply try a bit harder. This is an important omission, since one of the main arguments against faking is that it denies your partner the feedback he needs to improve.

Therefore, I have decided to construct my own economic model of the subject. Meanwhile, my advice is to stop faking orgasms, and instead make sure your partner doesn’t fake his foreplay.

First published at ft.com.

31st of July, 2004Dear EconomistComments off

Babies wear the trousers

Dear Economist,
My wife and I are delighted with our newborn baby girl, who is a little star. But it feels like a big responsibility to manage this new relationship. Can you give us any guidance as to how to bring her up properly?
Yours sincerely,
Mr T. Monks, London

Dear Mr Monks,
Congratulations, but also a word of warning. You’re thinking about your daughter the wrong way. You are not responsible for bringing her up. On the contrary, she is in control of the relationship.
The economist Mancur Olson wrote of “the exploitation of the great by the small”. At three o’clock this morning, as you toiled over a steaming nappy, you may have grasped what he meant. Often the player who appears to hold all the power is in fact the one who has to make the sacrifices.

For an example of Olson’s theory, witness the current debate over oil prices. Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer, is also the only country with spare capacity. Viewed another way, every other producer is pumping flat out while Saudi Arabia is forced to limit production to keep prices high. Only a large producer has the incentive to make this concession.

Your young daughter appears weak in the battle for control of the relationship. The truth is that countless generations of babies and parents have fought this battle. The parents who misjudged suffered some sleepless nights. The babies who misjudged never survived to produce new babies. You can afford to make sacrifices, but she cannot. It is obvious who will prevail.

The ancient economist Aesop put it best. Why did the hound fail to catch the hare? Because the hound was running for a dinner, but the hare was running for his life.

First published at ft.com.

24th of July, 2004Dear EconomistComments off

Saving in a whisky bottle

Dear Economist,

At the end of each day my friend puts all his loose change into a large (empty) whisky bottle. After six months he banks £300. This seems a good way of saving. What do you consider are the pros and cons of this method?

— Gordon Scripps, Cambridge

Dear Mr Scripps,

The advantages of your friend’s approach are, at first sight, unclear. He frequently rids himself of loose change, but by doing so ensures that every transaction generates yet more change. He also deprives himself of £5 a year in interest.

Carrying a bottle of coins to the bank every six months seems more hassle than setting up a standing order into a savings account, but perhaps such a bottle on the mantelpiece is what passes for a conversation piece in Cambridge. Let us assume, therefore, that the excitement of such a savings method is adequate compensation both for the inconvenience and the lost interest.

Even then, there is no obvious merit to this scheme. So, my guess is that your friend values the way that saving appears painless. This is inexplicable behaviour according to the textbook, but the broad-minded economist Thomas Schelling would argue that your friend’s behaviour is best explained by a split personality. Your friend wants to save on behalf of his long-term future self, yet realises that this evening he will be a different person, blowing any loose change in the pub fruit machines.

The whisky bottle is a strategic commitment device in the three- player game between your friend this afternoon, your friend this evening and your friend in retirement. Unfortunately, I don’t think £50 a month will provide much of a pension. I doubt that it will even pay for the psychiatrist.

First published at ft.com.

3rd of July, 2004Dear EconomistComments off


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