Commentary

Prospect Theory, Back Burners And Relationship Risk

What do 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.

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 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.

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If you take all this into account, 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 fallback 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.”

It’s also not surprising to learn that women keep an average of four potential “relationship” candidates from their entire list of contacts and eight 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 amongs all the options are open to us, subconsciously calculating the odds. This is 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, WhatsApp 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 Whatsapp 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 we're buying stuff, even if we have brand loyalty, we are increasingly aware of the “back burners” available to us.

2 comments about "Prospect Theory, Back Burners And Relationship Risk".
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  1. Andrew Susman from Emoto, October 4, 2016 at 12:51 p.m.

    Dear Gord. 

    That was most excellent.  Indeed, everything may be devolving to situational and temporary perceived utlity - with greater flow of information. 

    Aristotle said that there are three levels of friendship:
    a} pleasure (sex, wit, etc.) 
    b} utility (business, politics etc.
    c} virtue: mutual appreciation of the other performing virtue (only available to the virtuous). 

    I am sure that Readership has experienced some of all three.  It would seem that pleasure and utility relationships become increasingly temporary - where virtue might, one hopes, survive the dizzying cascade of undifferntiated Next Best Offers. 

    Then too, Quality God-Head Deming said that we should "Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.”

    xoxo, Andrew

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 4, 2016 at 8 p.m.

    Something we can live with better comes along or something we think is better at the time ? Reminds you of the fable about the dog with a bone in his mouth crossing the pond and see his reflection in the water with a bigger looking bone. He knows he can't have the one in his mouth and get the bigger one at the same time and the bigger one is better. So he drops the bone in his mouth to get the other one. (means he doesn't have either bone in the end for those of you who do not understand). "Don't drop the bone." should be always reverberating in your head, but selfishie stuff keeps getting in the way.

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