Should my wife use ‘positive incentives’?

1st August, 2009

Dear Economist,
Now that we have completed our family, my wife wants me to have a vasectomy, strongly hinting that she will withdraw all sexual favours unless I comply. For a long time now, the amount of sex we have been having (about once a month) has been less than I would like (a couple of times a week). While I am not an economist, I have read that positive incentives are important. Wouldn’t my wife have more chance of persuading me to have the snip if she promised me more frequent sex rather than threatening to withdraw it altogether?
Dave, London

Dear Dave,

In traditional economics there is no important motivational difference between stick and carrot, and so I can hardly accuse your wife of bad economics in that respect.

But, even if your proposal is accepted, you face a serious problem. Your vasectomy is a one-off operation, for which you seek an ongoing future incentive. How can you be sure that your wife will stick to the deal? Economists call this the “hold up problem”.

You are hoping for an extra 90 bouts of intimacy per year. Since I give your marriage five more years, tops, this adds up to an extra 450 sexual encounters in total. But there is no guarantee that, after you have your operation, you will experience any of them.

The obvious answer is a performance bond. Your wife could deposit, say, £45,000 with a lawyer. Whenever the two of you contact the lawyer to confirm that intercourse has occurred, he will release £100 to your wife.

Perhaps that seems unromantic, so I have a better idea – simply secure payment in kind upfront. If the two of you get busy, you should get through 450 lovemaking sessions within a year, perhaps sooner. You might even find you enjoy it so much that this troubled marriage perks up. I suggest you get started at once.

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