Behavioural Economics explains why women in mid 30s are in no hurry

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Bollywood got it all wrong. According to our blockbuster filmmakers, men’s major preoccupation is to chase women and for women it is to find love and settle down. While it may have been true in the previous century when the percentage of women in the workforce was less, If you ask any single women in their thirties now, they would debunk this with vengeance.

Single women are no more in a hurry to knot up. After successfully negotiating and sometimes escaping the “great Indian marriage tamasha” they are in peace with themselves more than ever before. Now past that phase in life when parents were “really worried” for them, their priorities and consequently outlook have undergone a paradigm shift. But, isn’t this counter-intuitive? For long we have believed the older you’re the more difficult it is to find someone.

The answer to this puzzle lies in “Behavioural Economics” and more accurately “Prospect Theory” (D Kahneman, & A Tversky, 1979), which shows that our decisions are not always about maximizing gains. Often humans settle down for sub-optimal choices depending upon how choices are presented to them or are perceived by them. For example, spending more time and effort on saving Rs 200 on a Rs 500 purchase vis-à-vis saving Rs 300 on a Rs 10,000 purchase, given money has no colour.

How does it apply to this context? Single women in their mid-thirties – what are they like? Typically in our metros and large towns, the picture would be that of a mid-manager working in a corporate position, well earning and independent, well travelled and used to take important decisions of her life such as financial investments, career, etc. Also, far less willing to compromise.

Often when asked if they are open to getting married, the answer invariably is yes. But, once things sort of go to the next level is when “empathy gap” kicks in. Empathy gap, coined by George Lowenstein, one of the founders of behavioural economics, is this inability to appreciate fully the effect of emotional and physiological states on decision making. The best known illustration occurs in sexual decision making, whereby men in a ‘cold’, unaroused state often predict that they will use a condom during their next sexual encounter, but when they are in an aroused ‘hot state’ they may fail to do so. Similarly, women often are “more” ready to settle down (“cold” state) but when they are close to saying yes (“hot” state) defer the same.

So what’s causing them to defer their decision when they reach “hot” state? Let us use behavioural economics, again, to explain this.

It is widely believed that marriage changes, or is perceived to change, a few things for women. Many women believe their career aspirations will take a hit, particularly when one is earning well. “For me career is very important. I have worked really hard to get here; I don’t want to lose it”, says Sonal, VP an an internet unicorn. Loss of independence is another major concern. When you’re single you’re free to go anywhere, do anything. After marriage that may not be possible. Marriage may also mean relocation – so change in city, may be even country and also change in social structures. Added responsibilities come with the “marriage protocol” – expectations around having a kid, managing family, taking care of the household, etc. Last but not the least the dreaded what-ifs. “What if it is just an infatuation”, “what if things don’t work out”, and many more such “what ifs” cloud decision-making. In short, there is a significant perceived “opportunity cost” of getting married. “I am independent. No need to compromise. Folks don’t pressurize the same way they did earlier. Society has become more accommodating of single women. And, what if it ends up in a divorce?”, says Archana who runs her own recruitment business and appropriately sums it up by saying “one life, live it up”. Humans tend to decide such as to avoid such perceived costs, in Behavioural Economics parlance known as “loss aversion” bias.

Perceived losses many a times outweigh “incentives” to nudge them to change their status to “married”. “Status quo bias” is when we tend to remain in status quo unless the incentive to change is strong. So, unless the choices for matrimony are very attractive, urban women today are most likely to say “I don’t” than say “I do”.

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