Scott Alexander got married! Congratulations to the happy couple. And true to form, Scott takes a rationalist approach to the whole experience, starting with details on his search algorithm:
[M] recommendation for those of you in the same place I was ten years ago is: accrue micromarriages.
Micromarriages come from this post by Chris Olah. They’re a riff on micromorts, a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Risk analysts use micromorts to compare how dangerous different things are: scuba diving is 5 micromorts per dive; COVID is 2,500 micromorts per infection; climbing Mt. Everest is 30,000 micromorts per attempt. So by analogy, micromarriages are a one in a million chance of getting married. Maybe going to a party gets you 500 micromarriages, and signing up for a really good dating site gives you 10,000. If there’s a Mt. Everest equivalent, I don’t know about it.
Chris thinks of micromarriages as a motivational tool. If you go to a party, and you don’t meet anyone interesting there, it’s tempting to get discouraged. If you try again and again, with identical results, it’s tempting to give up. Chris says: instead, think of yourself as getting 500 micromarriages each time (or whatever you decide the real number is, with the understanding that you should update your estimate at some rate conditional on success or failure). All you need to do is go to a thousand parties and you have a 50-50 chance of meeting the right person! Maybe that number would sound more encouraging if it was lower – but it took me twenty years of trying, so I couldn’t have been getting more than a few hundred micromarriages a day, and I wasn’t slacking off.
Twenty years and exactly one million micromarriages later, I have yet to find any better advice. Gather your micromarriages while ye may, for time is still a-flying. Do annoying things, expect them to fail, and increment a little counter in your head each time, to prevent yourself from going insane.
This is the best popularization of search theory known to me. And once the search process finally worked out, Scott moved on to the economics of optimal contracts:
Marriage is a contract, no different in theory than an airline’s contract with an airplane manufacturer. The airline says they’ll buy X planes over the next ten years; the manufacturer says they’ll provide them at such-and-such a price. At the moment of signing, both parties think it’s a good idea. If they both knew it would stay a good idea, a contract would be unnecessary. But something might change. The air travel market might crash, and then the airline would regret having ordered more planes, and want to back out. The price of raw materials might go up, and then the manufacturer would regret offering such a low price, and want to back out themselves. But it would be unfair for the airline to make the airline manufacturer commit to a complicated course of action – building new factories, hiring lots of workers – and then change their mind, leaving them in a worse position than when they started. And it would be unfair for the manufacturer to make the airline commit to a complicated course of action – opening new routes, signing contracts with more airports – and then pull the rug out from under them and demand a higher price. So if you’re committing to a mutual enterprise where both sides are going to make big irreversible changes to satisfy the other, you want a contract where they both agree not to back out, and agree to suffer heavy social and financial sanctions if they do.
Details on Scott’s optimal contract:
We’re getting married, and doing a prenup, and we’ve worked out some more complicated edge cases just between the two of us. Will it be enough? I don’t know; I’m not sure anyone can know at this point.
No snark intended, but Scott’s write-up is a big wedding present from him to me. Why? Well, some years ago, Scott almost entirely denied the broad applicability of basic economics:
I propose that the preference/budget distinction is a bad way of dealing with anything more complicated than which brand of shampoo to buy. We intuitively talk about our choices as if there were some kind of “mental energy” that allows one to pursue difficult preferences, and I discuss some ways this confuses our intuitive notion of budgeting in Parts II and III here. You don’t have to accept any particular framing of this, but to sweep the entire problem under the rug is to ignore reality because you’re trying to squeeze all of human experience into a theory about shampoo.
To which I replied:
This paragraph is quite a leap. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between preferences and constraints, so it’s “a bad way of dealing with anything more complicated than which brand of shampoo to buy”? How about choosing a career? Or a house? Or how many kids to have? Or what religion to join? These are all major life decisions, but we readily conceptualize them in terms of preferences and constraints. And contrary to Scott, this is good philosophy, psychology, economics, and common sense.
So what? Years ago, Scott told us that the “preference/budget distinction is a bad way of dealing with anything more complicated than which brand of shampoo to buy.” Yet he used this standard economic framework to deal with something vastly more complicated: his quest for a life partner.
The preference/budget distinction pervades Scott’s diction. “If you try again and again, with identical results, it’s tempting to give up.” “[I]t took me twenty years of trying, so I couldn’t have been getting more than a few hundred micromarriages a day, and I wasn’t slacking off.” “Gather your micromarriages while ye may, for time is still a-flying. Do annoying things, expect them to fail, and increment a little counter in your head each time…” Instead of telling people that there’s only one possible outcome because everything is “like a constraint,” Scott acknowledges that all of us have a vast array of choices – and must strategize to make the most of them. For shampoo and marriage alike.
As if that weren’t enough, Scott explicitly declares that, “Marriage is a contract, no different in theory than an airline’s contract with an airplane manufacturer.” Once again, he’s embracing the standard economic framework of preferences and constraints for life-defining decisions. Shampoo indeed.
Scott Alexander is a great guy. Other than the New York Times, everyone agrees. Part of what makes him great is that he teaches us how to make smarter choices. And a big part of making smarter choices is applying simple principles broadly. Don’t say, “That works for shampoo, but not dating” or “That works for airplanes, but not marriage.” Look at Scott: He’s living proof.