Prospect Theory, Back Burners and Relationship Risk

What does relationship infidelity and consumer behavior have in common? Both are changing, thanks to technology – or, more specifically – the intersection between technology and our brains. And for you regular readers, you know that stuff is right in my wheelhouse.

drouin

Dr. Michelle Drouin

So I was fascinated by a recent presentation given by Dr. Michelle Drouin from Purdue University. She talked about how connected technologies are impacting the way we think about relationship investment.

The idea of “investing” in a relationship probably paints in a less romantic light then we typically think of, but it’s an accurate description. We calculate odds and evaluate risk. It’s what we do. Now, in the case of love, an admittedly heuristic process becomes even less rational. Our subliminal risk appraisal system is subjugated by a volatile cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters. But – at the end of the day – we calculate odds.

If you take all this into account, Dr. Drouin’s research into “back burners” becomes fascinating, if not all that surprising. In the paper, back burners are defined as “a desired potential or continuing romantic/sexual partner with whom one communicates, but to whom one is not exclusively committed.” “Back burners” are our fall back bets when it comes to relationships or sexual liaisons. And they’re not exclusive to single people. People in committed relationships also keep a stable of “back burners.” Women keep an average of 4 potential “relationship” candidates from their entire list of contacts and 8 potential “liaison” candidates. Men, predictably, keep more options open. Male participants in the study reported an average of over 8 “relationship” options and 26 liaison “back burners.” Drouin’s hypothesis is that this number has recently jumped thanks to technology, especially with the connectivity offered through social media. We’re keeping more “back burners” because we can.

What does this have to do with advertising? The point I’m making is that this behavior is not unique. Humans treat pretty much everything like an open marketplace. We are constantly balancing risk and reward amongst all the options that are open to us, subconsciously calculating the odds. It’s called Prospect Theory. And, thanks to technology, that market is much larger than it’s ever been before. In this new world, our brain has become a Vegas odds maker on steroids.

In Drouin’s research, it appears that new technologies like Tinder, What’sapp and Facebook have had a huge impact on how we view relationships. Our fidelity balance has been tipped to the negative. Because we have more alternatives – and it’s easier to stay connected with those alternatives and keep them on the “back burner” – the odds are worth keeping our options open. Monogamy may not be our best bet anymore. Facebook is cited in one-third of all divorce cases in the U.K. And in Italy, evidence from the social messaging app What’sapp shows up in nearly half of the divorce proceedings.

So, it appears that humans are loyal – until a better offer with a degree of risk we can live with comes along.

This brings us back to our behaviors in the consumer world. It’s the same mental process, applied in a different environment. In this environment, relationships are defined as brand loyalty. And, as Emanuel Rosen and Itamar Simonson show in their book Absolute Value, we are increasingly keeping our options open in more and more consumer decisions. When it comes to buying stuff – even if we have brand loyalty – we are increasingly aware of the “back burners” available to us.

 

 

 

One thought on “Prospect Theory, Back Burners and Relationship Risk

  1. I’m wondering if this phenomenon also accounts for the number of plunging necklines and “come hither” looks I see on LinkedIn photos of professional women. And personal posts with inane responses [by both sexes] that feel like pleas for attention, more appropriate for Facebook than they are for the now-murky business focus of LinkedIn.

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