Nobel Economist Says “Identity” Makes Students Learn and Your Spouse Do More Housework

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According to Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, George Akerlof, we act according to our "identities" or we pay a cost in personal utility. Image: Flickr/MiikaNiemela

In a 2000 paper that Google Scholar shows cited 1,683 times and counting, Nobel Laureate and Berkeley economist George Akerlof writes that in married couples, “When men do all the outside work, they contribute on average about 10 percent of housework. But as their share of outside work falls, their share of housework rises to no more than 37 percent.” In other words, even when the wife is the primary breadwinner, she’s likely to also do more of the housework.

But why? Assuming spouses have equal bargaining power, they should settle on equal “personal utilities.” So why do relationships in which the wife works more reach equal personal utilities when she also does most of the housework? Likewise, why does one student learn while another, outwardly equal, student doesn’t? These problems puzzle classical economics.

“Actually, it’s simple,” said Akerlof when I interviewed him for my book, Brain Trust. “The idea is that in any situation, people have a notion as to who they are and how they should behave. And if you don’t behave according to your identity, you pay a cost.”

In this model, the red-blooded American male takes a hit to his identity when his wife earns more money than he does, and a further hit when he does housework (the size of the hit commensurate with how much he’s internalized the identity of “red-blooded American male”). To bring the “utilities” of husband and wife back into balance, she does more housework. It’s not fair, it’s not right, but it continues to be the behavioral economic reality of our culture, even in this supposedly evolved age of 2012.

Similarly, if you adopt the identity of “host,” you maximize your utility by serving drinks, and if you adopt the identity of “life of the party,” you maximize your utility by consuming them. And within us are many, many identities — maybe you hold within you the identities of father, husband, rock climber, geek, Grateful Dead fan, and author, each to varying degrees and thus with different bonuses and penalties to identity and personal utility for acting certain ways in certain situations. (At home I get an identity bonus for fighting with a double light saber, but at a speaking gig… not so much.)

Identity bonuses and penalties also explain why soldiers charge machine gun nests, while wussified pop-science writers can’t imagine making the same decision in identical circumstances. Simply, the Army builds in recruits the identity of “soldier” and then the decision whether to charge is a balance with the chance of death sitting on one side and identity sitting firmly on the other. What’s the greater penalty: the chance of death for charging or the identity loss for cringing? If the Army’s done its job well, identity expectations of “soldier” overrule risk.

The same is true of schools and businesses. Organizations that help members adopt the identity of “student” or of “employee” create behaviors that would otherwise be illogical: Students learn; employees work. Akerlof also points to marketers of Marlboro or Virginia Slim cigarettes, who imply that to earn the identity bonus of “real man” or “sophisticated woman” you should set fire to and inhale their products.

Again, we act according to the social expectations of our identities or we pay a very real, tangible cost in personal utility. “The point is that you can socially engineer these things,” says Akerlof. Witness the Army, a good school, a good business, or good cigarette marketers.

If you want your spouse to do more housework or your child to get good grades, you too will learn to socially engineer these things too. There are exactly two ways to do it. First, you can encourage your spouse to modify his or her identity. Social scientists have known for years that identity is influenced by surroundings. In fact, Akerlof points to this sculpting power of culture as one of the (many) reasons poverty persists — by trying to transcend existing identity, a motivated teenager at a tough school forces identity penalties on all his or her peers. And so instead of applauding the motivated teen, peers tend to maximize the utility of their own identities by teasing away unwanted deviance. The use to you is this: jumping directly into yoga class might be a stretch — no pun intended — but instead of nagging or cajoling or straight talk aimed at changing your spouse’s identity, find situations — friends, classes, TV shows, magazines, etc. — in which culture will do the work for you. People who cheer with the team become more cheerleader-like. Your challenge is to find the right team.

Or you can frame the desired behavior so that it aligns with the existing identity. For example, if you’re a wife trying to get your husband to put dirty clothes in the hamper rather than strewn around the floor near the hamper, how can you align this behavior with the identity of a real man? Is hitting the hamper like making the winning three-pointer? Is doing housework sexy? Does efficiently loading the dishwasher require manly spatial skills that only he can provide? Thus framed in terms of manliness, he can clean without paying an identity cost for it.

If you’re a GeekDad trying to get your wife to do more housework… well, shame on you. (That said, these techniques should work equally well.)

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