Valentine’s Blog

February 14, 2009 BY danariely

Given Valentine’s Day and the state of the market, let’s consider which approach to finding love is better: 1) the free market system where everyone can find their own date and figure out who and what is best for themselves; or 2) a regulated market where your parents, family, or perhaps some kind of matchmaker have a say. This may be an impractical question these days (how many people let their mothers set them up?), but this is still a complex problem that’s been discussed for millennia, without any apparent solution. But here’s a boon for anyone who is starting to lose hope of finding love: a study that shows the importance of commitment to happiness.

The world of dating has grown increasingly complex, we have online dating, speed dating, casual dating, traditional dating (I think it’s still around anyway), and so on. The problem is, that with so many options, commitment to a relationship becomes difficult—you never know if there’s someone more perfect for you just around the corner. In a world where switching partners is difficult, people are likely to hang on and attempt to work things out. But in a world where it’s easy, or seems easy, to switch partners, people are likely to give up when things first go wrong. And yet, the ever-present temptation that there is someone out there who is better can be incredibly devastating to our personal happiness.

So we have to wonder then, how important is commitment? Dan Gilbert and Jane Ebert conducted a study with this question in mind using photography. In their experiment, they gave students a short course in taking black and white photos and taught them how to develop their pictures in the darkroom. Half the people were told that they could pick one of their pictures to be professionally enlarged and developed, which they could then keep. The other half were told to pick two pictures to keep, and that they could change their minds until the minute that the film was sent off. These people had a continual temptation to change their choices, so they had time to consider and reconsider which of their prints were the best.
Later, each participant was asked to rate their level of happiness with their prints. Guess who was happier, those who chose a photo and stuck with it, or those who had flexibility and time to make the perfect selection? As it turned out, the people who could alter their choices were much less happy than the first group. The principle behind this is that when we have to deal with a certain reality, we get used to it and often come to prefer it. But if we think we can change it, we don’t force ourselves to cope, so inevitable imperfections—whether in people or in pictures—can drive us to distraction. And the same thing happens with marriage. If we think of marriage as an open market and always have half an eye on other options, we’ll be less likely to be happy.