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February 28, 2013

The "Tit for Tat" Mentality

Brett McKay on the pitfalls of scorekeeping. The problem is that, being human, we can't quite keep our own thumbs off the scale:

Couples who fall into The Tit for Tat Trap base their relationships on strict reciprocity. “I will only do this, if you do that. And if you stop doing what I expect of you, I will stop doing what you expect of me.”

Now relationships based on strict reciprocity can work well for say, two partners joined by a business contract. I give you money, and you give me a service or product. Quid pro quo.

The problem with using a framework of strict reciprocity in a personal relationship is that it is difficult, nay, impossible to exactly calculate the worth of each person’s actions and behavior.

First off, we still haven’t even resolved the debate over which is the tougher lot–working full-time or staying home with children (having had a hand in both, I’d say they’re equally difficult, just in different ways). And does cleaning the bathroom garner more points than mowing the lawn? Is folding the laundry harder than putting it away? Is installing a fan worth more than staying up with a sick child during the night? And that’s not even getting into weighing the emotional stuff. If you’re consistently the rock while the other person is allowed to fall apart, does that tip the scales in your favor? If one spouse is mopey and morose and the other optimistic and cheerful, does the latter get more marks on their side of the relational ledger book?

Compounding the difficulty in measuring the worth of such things is the fact that we are all terrible judges of just how much of the weight we’ve been pulling. This is because all human minds are subject to what is called the “availability heuristic.” Heuristics are problem-solving mental shortcuts our minds use to figure things out…but they’re not always all that accurate and are prone to biases.

In the case of the availability heuristic, we tend to believe that the easier it is to pull something from our memory (the more available it is to us), the larger the category and the more frequently the thing happens. So for example, since the media gives so much coverage to things like gruesome and unexpected deaths, people think that you’re more likely to die in a plane crash than a car wreck, and more likely to die in an accident than from a stroke, even though in both cases that’s simply untrue, and untrue by a wide margin of error. But since such vivid deaths are at the forefront of our minds, and are easy to retrieve from our memory, we believe they happen with greater frequency than they actually do.

One of the things that influences the availability heuristic is whether or not something happens to us personally, or to another person. Things that we experience ourselves are obviously more salient, and thus reside closer to the forefront of our minds—and this makes them easier to retrieve, which sways us into believing they happen with greater frequency than they do.

Which brings up back to relationships. Because it’s much easier to recall all the efforts we’ve been making from day to day, and it’s harder to remember what our partner’s been up to, we’re prone to think that we’ve been doing much more than the other person has. It’s easy to remember how we’ve been staying up late doing the taxes and spent all Saturday cleaning out the garage, but harder to recall that the wife spent Saturday doing errands, and was planning your kid’s birthday party while you were gathering together the year’s receipts.

In a study done by Ross and Sicoly, couples were asked to estimate what percentage they contributed to taking care of specific household chores. If the husbands and wives had been accurate in their assessments (say the husband said he took out the trash 60% of the time, while the wife said she did it 40% of the time), when they added up their respective percentages, each total should have come out to around 100%. But that’s not what happened; the totals consistently exceeded 100%. In other words, each partner overestimated their respective contributions to each chore. And the same result was found for other social contexts as well (such as group projects for school or work).

All of which is to say: when it comes to accurately keeping score in a relationship, we suck.

The importance of that at last insight is hard to overstate. Human beings are by nature selfish and self interested. We can't help sliding our thumbs onto the scale we use to decide whether we're getting everything we deserve from life.

Let's face it: we deserve the best, don't we? Of course we do. Or at least, I deserve the best. Come to think of it, I'm not so sure about you people.

We've been talking about tribalism quite a bit lately. When the cult of aggressive individualism becomes inconvenient, we seek comfort from the tribe of the like-minded. It's helpful if our tribe outnumbers the others, and here the obsessive media scrutiny of Pretty Much Everything helps us determine which tribe the majority of our fellow citizens identify with.

Natürlich, the media's view of human potential slants overwhelmingly negative; tales about confused souls paralyzed by their own fecklessness far outnumber those about successful, strong, competent, and above all disciplined people whose goals and behavior are consistent with their values. These people bore us. They're so... predictable. Where's the drama? The uncertainty? The angst? You won't see them on a reality show because they are relics of outdated thinking: exceptions to the general rule.

If we are to believe the media, constant confusion, indecision, and elaborate self-justification are the norm. What's artificial these days - downright weird, almost - is the person who takes responsibility for his own actions; the one who reaches for something a little more than he was born to be. The person who doesn't have to be forced to exercise self restraint. We used to find such aspirations noble; we recognized them as essential to the evolution of our race (not the familiar black/white/yellow or male/female divisions, but the one that actually binds us to each other: the human one). Now, we find the person who aspires to better him- or herself ridiculous.

There's a not so subtle refrain here: we're meant to identify with the helpless/hapless and resent the able. Who do they think they are, making us feel bad about ourselves? A more realistic standard would adopt dysfunction as the new normal, above which it is antisocial to aspire. After all, instincts are natural, damn it! And everyone knows, or ought to know, that biology is destiny. How easily we allow ourselves to be reduced to playing bonobos at dawn (and pretty much every other time of the day too).

I keep trying to think of a single great civilization built on the idea that character doesn't matter; that expecting others to aim for anything higher than the often conflicting instincts and desires they were born with is foolish and unrealistic. We've seen where this road leads. Somewhere along the national timeline that stretches from JFK's vision ("Ask not what your country can do for you...") to Obama's ("Your country should be doing more for you...", and "The system is rigged"), we lost the vision of a mankind built in God's image: one that is capable of the divine as well as the profane. We've gone from "ask not" to "demand more"; from concentrating on our responsibilities to complaining that what have is less than what we deserve.

Our grandparents knew the world was often unfair and the system rigged. Their response to the thousand natural injustices that flesh is heir to was to redouble their efforts, to outshine the competition, to work twice as hard and become three times as good as they needed to be to succeed. Character and habitual industry were generally all the insurance they needed against the inevitable misfortunes and chance vicissitudes of life. Somewhere along the line, life was virtually guaranteed to deal out a few hard knocks. The key was to get back up again and come out swinging; so long as one refused to give up, the odds favored eventual success.

The problem with the tit-for-tat mentality is that it encourages us to obsess about things we can't control (the actions or attitudes of others, the outcomes of decisions made with imperfect information) to the detriment of the one thing we can control: our own responses to what life deals out.

The illusion that we can control other people's behavior leads to the twisted reciprocity McKay describes - “I will only do this, if you do that. And if you stop doing what I expect of you, I will stop doing what you expect of me.” This is the metaphorical equivalent of, "If I don't get what I want, I'm taking my balls and going home", and both men and women do it. I know this, because it is one of the very first lessons a 20 year old bride learned during the first year of her own marriage. But if doing what is right, not in expectation of rewards but rather because it is the right thing to do is no longer deemed to be the categorical imperative upon which self respect, genuine reciprocity, and civilization all depend, what we're left with is the depressing cynicism of "I'll scratch your itch if and only if you agree to scratch mine".

That's a morality of sorts, I suppose. I'm not sure it's one that leads to successful marriages. Or great nations.

Posted by Cassandra at February 28, 2013 05:01 AM

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Comments

Well, Cass; I pretty much agree with your analysis here. Mrs Mongo and I talked out "treaties" before getting hitched. Example: "I'll go shopping with you but after two hours I need a drink and a break--I'll do two more hours but that's it for the day".Has worked pretty well for 26 years! Of course the basic treaty of Mrs Mongo is that we have her money and our money--but I'm OK with that too!

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at February 28, 2013 09:12 AM

There's always a silver lining isn't there? We are advanced enough in our understandings about everything that we may instantly undertake an anthropological audit of ourselves, and the society we have made. We have at least that to do; to write, read, and tsk-tsk over what it is that ails us, to keep us busy and confused and looking for answers. There's the Ross and Sicoly study, as mentioned, and Charles Murray, and Steven Pinker, and his sister Susan, and David Brooks in every other of his NYT columns, and on and on etal. Yet there's one thing in all of these audits (and they are interesting – and valuable) that never finds it's way into them – treachery (I seem to be using that term a lot lately).

What it is in our nature that has us calculating the worth of... and concluding that, in a zero sum world, we are being unappreciated, short-changed, even robbed, has always been there, in us. To the degree that foible waxes and wanes among the population is the degree to which society ebbs and flows. What makes the fact of it all worthy of only a chapter in history and not volumes are the institutions that served as bulwarks and redoubts in such situations. Corrections could be made because those institutions were corrective by their very purpose; those institutions were family, church/God, and community.

Weaken those institutions, destroy their purpose - co-opt them by whatever means, and the result is not social malaise, or national neurasthenia, but the death of a society in which the corruption can be smelled before the last rattle is heard. So by all means study us, tell us what is wrong with human nature. But don't leave out the part about having had what was meant to help us rise above our natures destroyed and replaced by that which would have us give in to our natures.

Posted by: George Pal at February 28, 2013 11:18 AM

What makes the fact of it all worthy of only a chapter in history and not volumes are the institutions that served as bulwarks and redoubts in such situations. Corrections could be made because those institutions were corrective by their very purpose; those institutions were family, church/God, and community.

Weaken those institutions, destroy their purpose - co-opt them by whatever means, and the result is not social malaise, or national neurasthenia, but the death of a society in which the corruption can be smelled before the last rattle is heard. So by all means study us, tell us what is wrong with human nature. But don't leave out the part about having had what was meant to help us rise above our natures destroyed and replaced by that which would have us give in to our natures.

Amen, George. Amen.

Capt. Mongo - it has taken me most of a lifetime to understand just how vital it is that husbands be able to defend personal boundaries (and hopefully, reasonable ones rather than the kind one reads about in a Dear Prudence column).

"Help - my husband is demanding that I support him as he grieves over the death of his mistress"

[thud] :)

The spousal unit and I got along much more smoothly once he realized that I actually want him to tell me when there are limits to his willingness to do something. I mean, it's not as though I wouldn't be able to tell anyway that something was bothering him, but as I'm not a mind reader I wouldn't necessarily interpret his behavior the right way.

It's such a relief when someone is just straight with you. What makes me (and many women) anxious and unhappy is when we sense that "something bad" just happened, but no one is willing to address it directly. Heck, it may not even have a solution but there's something to be said for just knowing what you're dealing with, as opposed to having to guess all the time.

Your wife is a lucky woman.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 28, 2013 11:31 AM

On the shopping thing, I always like to go have a beer somewhere nice after an hour or two of shopping.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 28, 2013 11:33 AM

A lot of ill will in relationships could be avoided if we made more of a habit of saying "no" when we mean "no." There's nothing like a "yes, but I'll make you sorry you asked" to get each of two people feeling equally aggrieved with each other over the same transaction. If we say "no," we may have to defend our refusal, but at least the discussion is honest and straightforward.

I don't know how many readers here watch "Justified," but I've been enjoying the healthy relationship between two otherwise crazy sociopaths, Boyd and Ava Crowley.

Posted by: Texan99 at February 28, 2013 12:53 PM

I'm a huge Justified fan, but I don't think the writing is as good this season.

I love Boyd's character though. All the decent parts of him come out in his relationship with Ava. And he seems to bring out the best in her, too.

Posted by: Princess Leia in a Cheese Danish Bikini at February 28, 2013 01:09 PM

Cass:

"Your wife is a lucky woman"

I'm the lucky one IMO, but thanks ;-)

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at February 28, 2013 03:08 PM

"On the shopping thing, I always like to go have a beer somewhere nice after an hour or two of shopping."

MH and I have always enjoyed going shopping after having a beer somewhere nice for an hour or two, too.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at February 28, 2013 04:43 PM

Beer -- is there any experience it can't improve?

Posted by: Cassandra at February 28, 2013 04:57 PM

"I'm the lucky one IMO"...

The best guys always say that. It's a dead giveaway :)

Posted by: Cassandra at February 28, 2013 04:58 PM

Well, I'm sure there are a couple of experiences beer would not improve. However, it will increasingly enhance the capability to "not care" about them.
Either way works for me.
heh
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at February 28, 2013 05:35 PM

I'll have you know that the title of this post has been judiciously avoided....
Course, that's cuz I have the cookies.

Posted by: Evil Twin at February 28, 2013 11:17 PM

I think it's a terrible mistake to "negotiate" in a marriage like the article mentions. But I have seen people do it. My wife and I treat our marriage as a team, not a business partnership. It's us against the world, not us against each other. Score keeping is working against the other guy. The very name of it shows this to be true. Keeping score is what opposing teams in sports do. I help her when she's weak, and she helps me when I'm weak. We support each other, not bicker and argue over who killed who... sorry, fell into some Python there.

The spousal unit and I got along much more smoothly once he realized that I actually want him to tell me when there are limits to his willingness to do something.

I will admit that the Bride and I do have a little trouble when it comes to this. Mostly because I don't object to something unless I really don't want to do it. If she asks for something particular for dinner, and I pause before answering, she assumes I'm trying to find a polite way of saying no. Truth be told, I'm making up my mind, but if the answer is no, I'm going to tell her no. I just do it so rarely, I think she assumes I'm just being nice. I've tried convincing her of the truth of the matter, and even point out the times that I HAVE said no, but she always needs some reassurance ("Are you SURE it's ok?").

Posted by: MikeD at March 1, 2013 08:53 AM

MikeD, I'm often lost in admiration for how healthy you sound.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 1, 2013 09:05 AM

I often wonder how typical my husband is, especially when I hear guys talk about how they think and react.

The spousal unit bristles at the slightest hint of being told what to do (but then so do I!), but is usually very easy to get along with so long as he thinks he's being treated fairly. What I think I only began to think recently is that despite this normal reaction, he genuinely feels some sense of duty to make me happy that seems to go beyond the usual, "I love this person, so..." duty we all feel/should feel. It seems to come from the traditional male husband role - it's his job to protect me/keep me safe and when I am unhappy about something, somehow that means he isn't doing his job.

It's like an added layer - an odd combination of normal healthy male assertiveness (and believe me, he is very assertive) and what Grim often refers to as a willingness to be bound by a duty he wouldn't ordinarily feel simply because I'm his wife.

So I've had to learn to be more aware of how that colors his view of things. He definitely isn't unwilling to cross me (!), but there's a male reluctance to complain that gets in the way sometimes when I wish he *would* complain b/c I can't fix what I don't understand. I don't view speaking up as complaining - I view it as helpful communication (obviously provided it is expressed that way) but he sees it differently.

I read somewhere that in general, women expect conflict in a relationship and are less fazed by it than men, and in my experience, that seems broadly true. This is yet another reason I object to simplistic characterizations of masculinity - in my experience, men are actually very adaptable and willing to cooperate and when I read idiotic essays about how men are just so simple minded and can't handle the ups and downs of every day interactions between people, my head just explodes.

Men can be marvelously subtle and perceptive. Society may or may not prize these qualities in a man, but there is zero doubt in my mind that they exist because I am continually awed by them.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2013 09:29 AM

MikeD, I'm often lost in admiration for how healthy you sound.

Dittos, here.

My Mom likes to tell a story about a comment made about my Dad when he was in the Navy - it was something along the lines of, "Bill is almost too well adjusted" :p

And he does take most things in stride.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2013 09:33 AM

"The spousal unit bristles at the slightest hint of being told what to do..."

Interesting that he spent one of his lifetimes taking orders and being told what to do -- as that was the very reason why my folks could never get me to even remotely consider the military as a career.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at March 1, 2013 02:20 PM

MikeD, I'm often lost in admiration for how healthy you sound.

Truth be told, I'm not feeling very well today. ;)

But seriously, ladies, you'll make me blush here. I'm just a guy. You want to see a real exceptional fella, you need to meet my Dad. I'm just a pale reflection of that man.

The spousal unit bristles at the slightest hint of being told what to do (but then so do I!), but is usually very easy to get along with so long as he thinks he's being treated fairly. What I think I only began to think recently is that despite this normal reaction, he genuinely feels some sense of duty to make me happy that seems to go beyond the usual, "I love this person, so..." duty we all feel/should feel. It seems to come from the traditional male husband role - it's his job to protect me/keep me safe and when I am unhappy about something, somehow that means he isn't doing his job.

I get muley too, it's not my best trait. But oddly, I didn't have a lot of trouble with taking orders in the Army. And I get what you mean about feeling let down when you get unhappy. I don't pretend to think I can keep her from ever being unhappy. But it's kind of my job to give her a shoulder to cry on, if that's what she needs, or try to help if it's in my power. But like I said, that's not one sided. She's my strength when I get weak too. Like I said, we're a team, we cover for each other.

Posted by: MikeD at March 1, 2013 03:10 PM

What I think I only began to think recently is that despite this normal reaction, he genuinely feels some sense of duty to make me happy that seems to go beyond the usual, "I love this person, so..." duty we all feel/should feel. It seems to come from the traditional male husband role - it's his job to protect me/keep me safe and when I am unhappy about something, somehow that means he isn't doing his job.

It's like an added layer - an odd combination of normal healthy male assertiveness (and believe me, he is very assertive) and what Grim often refers to as a willingness to be bound by a duty he wouldn't ordinarily feel simply because I'm his wife.

As to whether that is normal for men, I cannot say. That is certainly exactly how it is for me.

Posted by: Grim at March 1, 2013 03:26 PM

As to whether that is normal for men, I cannot say. That is certainly exactly how it is for me.

Maybe only the very best ones, Grim :)

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2013 03:45 PM

"muley" :)

That's a great term. It's exactly the look he gets, sometimes.

Interesting that he spent one of his lifetimes taking orders and being told what to do -- as that was the very reason why my folks could never get me to even remotely consider the military as a career.

I think the reason he ended up in the Marines is that he thought they were the most consistent about rules. He can live with rules, but it drives him nuts when their enforcement is capricious.

I doubt I could have accepted military discipline - I have always worked for small companies b/c they offer so much more autonomy.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2013 03:49 PM

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