Thursday, 23 December 2010

First comes dictatorship, then comes marriage...

Having hit the age of 28 a few weeks ago, I have now crossed that stage where my parents (and various other relatives and family friends) keep asking me when I'm going to get married and am now at the point wherein said elders (and some youngers, I might add) have decided to take it into their own hands to find me a wife. Now I'm not much of a fan of arranged marriage, both conceptually (too loaded in favour of the guy, etc) and practically (I've lived away from home for over 1o years now and move in a different social milieu from my parents, so it would be pretty difficult for them to find someone I would have independently chosen), but I've gotten tired of fighting the idea outright. Instead, I've given in to allowing them to start looking, while using equal parts of rational discussion and emotional blackmail to ensure they stick to some basic principles while choosing. I'm hoping this will buy me some time, and also put to the test an important principle in economics. That's right - I'm actually trying an experiment, so if I get married in the next 6 months, consider me a martyr to science. Or, at least, social science. Allow me to explain:

(A quick word before I start: kids, don't try this at home!)

It helps that my parents are actually pretty nice about this whole thing, wanting to take into account each other's opinion as well as the opinions of various friends and well-wishers, not to mention my own. If they were more dictatorial, of course, I'd have been married by now. So, anyway, what this means is that any decision that gets made in choosing a potential mate involves aggregating the opinions of a whole lot of people. I suppose I could hold more sway over the final decision by getting more involved in the selection process, but I find it somehow weird, not to mention time-consuming, to sit in judgement over random women based on what they (or, more likely, their parents) have written in a profile on or some such site. So instead I've traded that dubious 'right' for the moral high ground, from whence I only look on smilingly at their efforts, asking only that they follow some simple principles:
  1. That if they decide that they prefer Girl A to Girl B and in turn prefer Girl B to Girl C, they ought to prefer Girl A to Girl C (where A, B and C are of course hypothetical)
  2. That their preference of Girl A over Girl B should not change if they come to the conclusion that Girl B is after all a better choice than that other girl D
  3. That if everyone whose opinion seems to matter prefers Girl A to Girl B (say), then collectively they ought to state that preference; And finally,
  4. That the final choice should take into account everyone's preferences and should not be imposed on the basis of one person's opinions

Now all this might seem only like the decent and sensible thing, and you might wonder why it would prevent me from getting married in the next couple of weeks, leave alone six months. And well you might, if you haven't studied much economics.
Because, ladies and gentlemen, the above conditions are all part of the wonderfully named 'Arrow's Impossibility Theorem' (sounds like something out of a geeky superhero comic, no?). Formally, Arrow's theorem states that if there are 3 or more alternatives and 2 or more decision-makers, no preference aggregation rule exists that would satisfy the conditions of unanimity (condition 3), non-dictatorship (condition 4) and the independence of irrelevant alternatives (condition 2). Alternatively, it can also be stated as: any preference that aggregation rule that respects transitivity (condition 1), unanimity and the independence of irrelevant alternatives is a dictatorship (i.e. it cannot meet condition 4). Or, to put it simply, yours truly can stay single for a while longer while appearing to be a reasonable and logical young man.
For those of you who want a more detailed explanation of the theorem, good old Wikipedia has a good explanation of this including a pretty neat proof, so I'll just point you there.

There are of course a few quibbles that may come to your mind. Firstly, people obviously still get marriages arranged, even reasonable people, so there must be some way around the problem. Usually that happens because at some point a few decision-makers decide that they've had it with trying to get consensus and make a choice i.e. something like a dictatorship (or at least a marital junta of sorts) gets formed. What that usually means is that while a few people get the power to decide, it appears that everyone's choice was taken into account, including the person getting married (though everyone outside the junta is actually being over-ruled). Here's where a bit of emotional blackmail helps - by claiming to cede my right to choose, I'm basically in a position to ensure that no-one else plays dictator either.

The other possibility is what might be termed a 'cake or death' case - if there's one option that's obviously better than the other(s) so that everyone's rooting for it, then it basically means that everyone's preferences are identical, and there's actually a consensus and I have to get married. But that would just mean that I have to marry someone who's so awesome that she impresses my parents and extended family, all of whom have higher expectations than I do, and she's willing to marry me. Well, I guess one could settle for that, I suppose.


  1. ha ha ha. i knew where you were getting when i read the transitivity condition.

    there is one more possibility. the junta may get tired of disagreeing and various parties with relatively lower interests in the choice of your partner may give up and agree with just any choice...


  2. Oh but this is brilliant! I just finished teaching Pub Econ at my college, and I wish I could have used this - reads a lot, lot better than any text.
    Zimbly zuperb!

  3. :D I literally burst out laughing as soon as I read your conditions.

    Not that I think it will actually help- consensus shouldn't really be that hard, and 4) is almost impossible to enforce, in practice- but the idea is nice.

  4. thank you all.
    @sneha - That situation is broadly how various cousins of mine have ended up getting parental consent to marry people of their own choice. Sadly, I have a feeling I might be expected to offset that...
    @thepuneri Pub Econ huh? If you'd like to use this example, go right ahead. Though you might end up having a few old-school Pune-kars up in arms against you for teaching their kids strange ideas about arranged marriage being sub-optimal.
    @ramblingperfectionist you obviously don't know my parents. If there is someone out there who can simultaneously impress both of them as well as my extended family, she'd have to be either superhuman or a complete con-job. Either way, getting married to someone like that would be fun. As for condition (4), I aim to apply all the EB I can muster to keep people honest.

  5. one thing this Arrow guy (who is he exactly? :P) ignores is that preferences aren't fixed, they change. They change because some information is exchanged. Said information could regard individual preferences, opinions etc. (Hey, in all fairness you're using Kenneth Arrow to figure out a way to not get married. He is.) So it might be that what looks like a dictatorship really is just a consensus forming. Might I point out this seems to be a largely ignored idea within economics even in these relatively enlightened days. People actually talk to each other? How strange!

    I believe it is Kahnmenan who said "economists talk about preferences, while psychologists talk about attitudes".

    It is easier to see how an attitude can change, but thinking in terms of preferences ignores the dynamic inherent in group decision making. And with that I will stop.

    (Except that if someone points out that the game theoretic idea of cheap talk does capture the above notion, I will only say that it does it incompletely.)

  6. K, my good man. Completely agree with your point about preferences changing and leading to a consensus.
    I think that, ex ante, most people think it somewhat 'noble' or preferable to appear consistent and 'fair' in their stated preferences. For example, remember Keynes' quote about changing his mind when the facts change? That wouldn't have had as much of an impact as a retort if most people didn't think it noble to appear to be consistent. Therefore, if I chose to do so, I could slimily insinuate that changing their opinion would make people appear inconsistent and therefore somehow unfair or even irrational...

  7. ah yes, time inconsistent preferences. they create some trouble.

    perhaps thinking in ex ante terms is misleading. heh, the sort of stuff I'm doing now is based around this notion.

  8. Goodone JC. You might like this as well

    It is on 'stable' matching in marriages, an interesting mathematical problem, which I encountered in my game theory course.

  9. never pictured u on ... so this what it has come down to huh..u have my sympathy....what can i say life comes full circle...and that pic is 5 yrs old, i'm sure u don't look like that anymore, do u?

  10. @Anon which pic are you referring to? If you're referring to my Blogger profile pic, then yeah, I still look pretty much the same.

  11. An engaging post alright. But I didn't really get why the arranged marriage is "too loaded in favour of the guy"...unless of course you were referring to the dowry bit?

  12. Well, most of the time the guy's family is allowed to set much higher standards for prospective brides than the corresponding standards set for the grooms. As long as the guy is not an outright cripple or mentally deficient or something, his family is probably going to be looking for some kind of trophy wife who's pretty, well-mannered, educated and (usually) also pretty well-off. I think this predilection for finding a trophy wife has gotten stronger in recent years.
    Consider this as a thought experiment: how many of the Indian men born in the 80's that you know of who have had an arranged marriage would have been able to actually woo the women they eventually married, if they didn't have their extended families get involved to close out the deal?

  13. Okayy, I think this is my cue to emphatically state "Oh,SEVERAL" and run for my life.

    But I find it strange that you think parents would not want a groom who's good-looking, well-mannered, educated and also well-off (or at least at the same rung in the socioeconomic ladder) for their daughter. Granted, looks could be less important, but who'd marry off their daughter to a down-on-his-luck boor? Unless of course the family has a really big skeleton in their Godrej almirah. But even that would work both ways, wouldn't it? As per your definition, I can authoritatively state that the bride's family looks out for a 'trophy' groom too.

    And the 'thought experiment' is rather unfair, no? Especially in the Malayalee context? The average Malayalee (male AND female) decides to go in for the whole arranged marriage shindig mainly because he/she did/could not date, and if he/she did, did not find marriage material. All I'm saying is that the arranged marriage, if unfair, is so for both parties (if you ignore the dowry angle).

    - (ducking under cover) Same Anon As Above:D

  14. Couldn't get the Comments section to work at work btw...hmm just as well...

    - SAAA

  15. SAAA is so much better than 'Anonymous'. :-)

    Anyway, about why I think arranged marriages usually work out better for the men:
    Firstly, given that most Indian families are patriarchal in nature, men/boys are usually more 'prized' than women/girls - which means that the prospective groom's side of the family usually has an inflated estimate of his worth (not just monetary, but in terms of what a good-looking, intelligent, guy he is), whereas for women there isn't (usually), which means that if the matching is being done by the families, the groom's family will typically expect to match him with a girl who might otherwise be, if not out of it entirely, then at least at the upper-bound of his league.
    Further, by limiting the search based on criteria like age, religion, caste, height etc, arranged marriages also make these parameters far too important in the final decision, compared to say factors like having a sense of humour or being manic depressive or whatever whch might have a much greater bearing on the marriage. Consider this paper by Ariely et al: PEOPLE ARE EXPERIENCE GOODS: IMPROVING ONLINE DATING WITH VIRTUAL DATE : ' dating frequently fails to meet user expectations because people, unlike many commodities available for purchase online, are experience goods: Daters wish to screen potential romantic partners by experiential attributes (such as sense of humor or rapport), but online dating Web sites force them to screen by searchable attributes (such as income or religion)'
    While this paper is talking about online dating, I think the basic idea also holds for any such situation where people have to be matched. It becomes more like filling out a job description and then looking for people whose CV fits that. I think this also works against women - the tolerance levels are much less for them so being even a little too tall, overweight or old automatically rules them out of a lot of potential arranged matches, whereas men are given more leeway. Also, by making parameters like age, income and background more important, it makes it tougher to sift through which men might actually be nice to get to know, especially since very few Indian men (including myself) are spectacularly good-looking or well-groomed.
    I'm going to stop now because it's late.
    By the way, do I know you?

  16. Hahaha! Now that's a first for me! Makes me feel vaguely sleazy…as if I just asked you to "make fraanship".

    And no, you don't:)

    Took me multiple attempts to read the whole thing though. Not a huge fan of the paragraph I see:)

    So, you do have a point there…regarding the parameters of search. But I just have to reiterate that parents of brides are just as 'nitpicky'. I know of someone whose parents rejected a guy because they thought the mother was too domineering (and they came to this conclusion because it was the mother who did most of the talking on the phone)! And this is a true story….I didn't just make it up to prove a point:) I for one would have thought it would be a point in the guy's favour…yeah, I have this vague idea that guys who have grown up with a strong female presence in their lives will have more respect for women (no empirical proof though...the strongest woman I know has no sons:) What do you think?).

    Another thing, even if the guy's family do start off with highfalutin expectations, they become realistic enough when there is a dearth of options. I know somebody who wanted a "fair and beautiful" bride. He kept rejecting proposals till he finally got fed-up after a year or two and married somebody who is not beautiful by any stretch of imagination (yes, that was mean, I know). She is an angel of a person, but given the amount of interaction between prospective brides and grooms 10-12 years ago, I doubt he would have caught on to that before marrying her.

    So anyway, since I don't have scholarly articles to throw at you (didn't make it past page 2 of the online dating one, I confess), I shall just take the coward's lifeline and say "we shall agree to disagree" and gracefully make my exit:)

    - SAAA

  17. Scratch that snide remark about the paragraph...the text appears okay now and I can actually see the space:)


  18. Make an exit? Aww. And just when we were getting to know each other too. :-)

    Sorry about the lack of line spacing.

    There's a difference between 'growing up with a strong female presence' and having a mother who is too domineering. The former is preferable to the latter, especially if you're evaluating potential grooms.

    As for changing preferences, Kanishka also referred to it, albeit in a more theoretical context. In your example, keep in mind that the guy's family could afford to have high expectations for 2 years, whereas the girl's probably weren't expecting that much anyway.

    For what it's worth, I didn't get past page 2 either :-) I just happened to read Ariely's summary of the research earlier and googled to find this paper.

    Singapore, huh?

  19. Singapore what?

    - SAAA

  20. Oh I'm sorry, was that meant to be a guess at my location?

  21. Spent an incredibly long time wondering where on earth Singapore came up from. And THEN the bulb flickered on. We work on VMs (then again, I posted the comments while at home, so why Singapore?). And now I have a vague feeling I have revealed myself to be a blogging world ignoramous. Anyway, I yam lawkkal only. And that's all I'm saying…wild horses couldn't drag more out of me! Neither could sneaky persuasion:P

    Now buck up and think about your next blog post. I've finished all the 'back issues', at least the ones that didn't involve economics (meh) or cricket (bigger meh)…yeah I was THAT vella at work:)

    - SAAA

  22. ok then, Hyderabad? Singapore was my first guess since that was where most of the page hits were coming from. You obviously seem to have a lot of free time at work.

    Are you sure you can't come up with a better moniker than SAAA?

  23. You’re treading on dangerously thin ice here. I AM the only one allowed to insinuate/state outright that I obviously have a lot of free time at work.

    And when I said wild horses or sneaky persuasion, I meant to imply a game of twenty questions too.

    - Againstmybetterinstincts

  24. Its hilarious :)

  25. Hey, Amit! I see you've finally found my blog. Glad you liked it.

  26. Rahul Tom Joseph11 April 2011 at 14:42

    And what if a nosy cousin points this blog out to your parents? :)

    I wonder why I didn't stumble upon this earlier. Made for very interesting, and amusing reading. At least in a Malayalee context, I have to agree that conditions are more favourable to the groom. Though it’s not just an inflated sense of self-worth that makes it such. The same parameters that deem a male worthy, often work against a prospective bride. Educational background, primarily. An IIT/IIM grad (male) would be much sought after, whereas a female with the same qualifications would be seen as being too ambitious, or independent for her own good.

    My 0.02 ¢ (though lacking basis in any established theory, cept my own).

    P.S. In the off chance that you are looking to find love online, wouldn’t “Ugly, but Bearable” work against you? Don’t sell yourself short Joe!

  27. Rahul Tom Joseph11 April 2011 at 14:58

    Alright, ignore the postscript. I just read your clarifications. "But monae, why would you think you are ugly?" Hilarious!

  28. RTJ! Good to see you that you've finally landed up on this blog as well, though admittedly it's going slowly defunct.
    FWIW, so far none of the other nosy cousins who've landed up on the blog have bothered pointing this out to my parents.
    Now that you've got here, can I also convince you to get active on twitter and/or Google Reader?

  29. Rahul Tom Joseph17 April 2011 at 14:08

    I am already on twitter, though I haven't quite figured out how to use it well enough. Let me add far as Google Reader goes, I prefer using a desktop aggregator..