People do what they do because they want to do it

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, July 16, 2009 16:22 EDT
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Last night, a friend and I were talking about my recent trip to Vegas and the practice of gambling. I was (obviously) on the pro side, and he was, to my surprise, against it. I say I was surprised because he’s an adrenaline junkie, and so I thought he’d love the thrill. But he said that he’d played blackjack in Vegas and found that losing 5 hands in a row and watching his money disappear in a puff of smoke made him sick, so he walked away and never returned. What’s interesting about this is what happened next—both of us tried to employ “rational” arguments for why our tastes were different, to determine who was “right”. He said, quite rationally, that you’re just handing the casino your money and getting nothing in return. I said, with the help of someone listening in, that you get hours of entertainment in return. Since we didn’t really give a shit about the topic, we dropped it, but reading this thread this morning, I found myself reflecting on the fetish for rationality that dominates our culture. Or the fetish for trying to quantify everything into cost/benefit analysis, with the only acceptable reasons for doing something being that it makes/saves money or improves basic physical health. (In my case, I argued gambling was “rational” by leaning on the fact that people do spend money to entertain themselves, so the expenditure was not outlandish.)

I wrote the post because I was amused at the negative tone that I perceived in an article about cohabitation, and the research that indicates that people live together for emotional, non-mercenary reasons—because they’re in love and want to spend more time together. But in the thread, as is usual with threads about decisions to live together or marry, people dwelt upon and often insisted that the reasons are mainly rational, and mainly to save money. In marriage discussions, the invocation of health insurance has become an inevitability, even though I have yet to go to a wedding where they say, “Do you promise to love, honor, cherish, and always make sure to have adequate coverage until death do you get put into an actuary table?”

I fear I offended some people—okay, I know I offended some people—by dismissing the idea that people marry for reasons of economic rationality, to improve the bottom line. I think a very small minority of married couples were pushed over the line because they wanted a tax break or health insurance, but I pointed out that these privileges are unfair and should be made available to all, and, more to the point, I doubt very seriously that if you took away all financial and legal privileges that you get with marriage that it would do much to the actual rate of marriage. Because people don’t get married for health insurance, to avoid writing a will, or for the tax breaks. Like the vast majority of human decisions, the decision to marry is based on a combination of expectations and emotional reasons. Expectations dictate a whole lot of human behavior, which is why there’s a not-unreasonable obsession with role models in our culture. Most of the time, people don’t need to be bullied into behaving in certain ways. They look around, see what other people are doing, and do that. On top of that, people do things for emotional reasons, mainly maintaining social status, ego, avoidance of fear, and pleasure. After all that influences your choices, strict fiscal analysis of health and wealth benefits barely has any room to change anything.

Take the above gambling discussion. We both tried it because it was what’s expected you do in Vegas. I kept at it because it gave me pleasure. He avoided it because it tripped up some fears he has about loss. Admitting this outright causes a great deal of shame, however, so instead we just start coughing up rationalizations. It’s nothing to sweat, because it was a discussion that had no consequences, but if it did have consequences, there might be a serious problem with squelching our understanding of why we really do things and insisting that we’re strictly mercenary, rational people. For instance, take the entire bullshit discourse about free market economics, that falsely assumes both that people are capable of knowing everything they need to to make strictly rational decisions, and that they mostly will make strictly rational decisions, and if they don’t do that, they are bad people who deserve what they get. Well, strictly rational decisions are .0001% of decisions, so building our entire economic system, cultural mores, and merit assessments on that model is a stupid idea.

I won’t lie; I enjoy needling people on the question of why get married when cohabitation fills the need to be with your lover just as well. I’m probably being a little sadistic in doing so, but mostly I’m fascinated by how much the real reasons that I see that people get married are ignored in these discussions. Here’s what I see really informs the decision to get married:

*Social expectations that this is just what you do. Again, psychology has demonstrated repeatedly that people tend to take their cues from the world around them and behave accordingly. The more momentous the decision, the more they question it, of course. Getting married isn’t something you do strictly out of environmental cues in the same way you, for instance, stand up for an ovation because everyone else is doing it. But it’s a huge factor. And it’s one that causes a lot of shame, because people don’t like to think they’re conformists. But let’s face it—with the exception of a very small percentage of eccentrics who are probably built differently than the rest of us, people are conformists and that’s okay. We conform so often we don’t even think about it. I’ve conformed roughly one million times today, and it’s not noon yet—I wore clothes, minded my manners, queued up at the store properly, spoke English, didn’t fart in someone’s face, etc.

*Ego. In case you can’t tell, I’m listing these in order of the shame they provoke in people. Ironically, the reason people feel shame at all is ego, and then they feel shame about having egos. Getting married is really sold up based on ego reasons. It’s very ego-boosting to have someone want to commit to you, and it’s very ego-boosting to have a big party where everyone celebrates your accomplishment of getting someone to commit to you. You can really tell, if you’re an unmarried feminist, how much ego is tied up in marriage, because anti-feminists go for ego right away, accusing you of being a feminist because you’re bitter that no one would marry and validate your worth.

Social status. This does cross-pollinate with strictly rational reasons, since social status can result in better economic outcomes, but usually only for men, who see salaries rise after marriage. However, women’s go down, so from a strictly rational viewpoint, it’s a wash. But both men and women see their social status rise when married, and this is not a small reason that women have been easy enough to convince to change their names and slap a “Mrs” on it. All the legal and economic benefits we extend to married people are a way to codify this social status. Barring gay people from achieving this social status is why conservatives oppose gay marriage.

Avoidance of fear. If this isn’t employed as a strong bullying tactic to get people into marriage, then I’ll happily pick my nose in public. You’ll die alone if you don’t marry! No one will want you! Public commitments reassure people that they won’t lose their partners, be rejected, be alone. This is one place where I really feel antagonism about marriage, though, because I feel people are buying insurance that won’t pay out. Marriages fail. A lot. And then people who get divorced get really depressed, because they do fear dying alone or being past their sell-by date. Fear isn’t a bad thing in the grand scheme of things, and can often convince people to be safe. But there’s a dishonesty to how fear is employed in the marriage department.

Pleasure. Being in love is fun. Fussing over your lover is fun. Weddings especially give people a chance to do this.

I put this list together, because this is what I was worried about when I decided that I don’t want to get married—that I’ll be alone, that people will think no one loves me that much, that I’ll be treated like a child and condescended to, that I won’t get the pleasures of a wedding, that I’ll be a weirdo. I didn’t think, “What if one day I’m not insured and I need insurance?” I don’t think people are dupes, sell-outs, or suckers for having these reasons. I think that these are human reasons, and they are often very good reasons (except the fear one). We call ego “self-esteem” to dress it up in more flattering clothes, because having a strong sense of self is good for you. Social status is upsetting to liberals because we see all the downsides of hierarchy, but conservatives get angsty about pleasure, which they see as a threat to order. Expectations cause all individualism-loving Americans stress, but if you think about it, we wouldn’t be able to function as social creatures without the ability to take cues from our environment and act accordingly. More to the point, I think that people live together without the benefit of marriage for roughly the same emotional reasons, but they just have a different list of priorities and/or a different read on what each of these motivators mean.

None of this means I’m against rationality, either. My issue is that rationality has been conflated with economic bottom lines and avoiding passion, and that’s not what it’s supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about evaluating claims based on evidence and logic, and not about telling individuals that they can’t make decisions because it just feels good or for the hell of it or because they’re kind of neurotic and it soothes them or whatever. In other words, to say that marriage is an outdated institution that needs to be reevaluated doesn’t mean that individuals who married made a bad decision they should be ashamed of. In our culture, it’s perfectly understandable to get married because you’re in love. That’s what we do. But we can change expectations if they’re failing people.

I think the insistence that marriage is mainly a choice made of economic rationality is especially fashionable because of the gay marriage debate. Conservatives claim that gay people don’t need marriage, and liberals defend gay people by pointing to economic, rational reasons that they do need marriage. These things are true, and over time, I think we’ve convinced ourselves that this is why people get married or want to get married. But it’s not. People get married because of emotional reasons, and rationalizing happens after the decision is made. Gay people want the same right to do that, and they should. Conservatives object to same-sex marriage because they fear that allowing gay people access to the same social status rituals as straight people, they’ll gain equality. This isn’t an irrational fear, because giving gay people equal status is exactly why liberals support gay marriage. In a lot of ways, the health insurance argument, while sounding very rational and being technically true, is a red herring that distracts from the real point of disagreement.

And really, it tells you a lot about how much rationality can really do for us. Logic and rationality will tell us that the argument is over whether or not gay people should be allowed to access institutions that give them social status claims that will lead to equality. But whether or not this is a good thing is a value judgment, and people decide what they believe on emotions.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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