Quick Review: Spousonomics

I picked up Spousonomics recently after reading some reviews earlier this year. Here are some thoughts about this book that has the intriguing subtitle “Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes”:

1. The book uses economic principles to illustrate common problems in marriage. The bulk of each chapter is made up of case studies, usually three per chapter, where we read about how couples were using economic principles without knowing it.

2. I’m not sure what this book aspires to be: a primer in basic economic principles? A marriage book? Based on the front cover blurb from Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) and the heavy emphasis on case studies, it reads more like a marriage advice book, just from the perspective of economics. On the other hand, the authors, both journalists, begin each chapter by explaining economic concepts and seem interested in sharing these ideas with a broader public. With some more information (more on this in a moment), this could be an interesting introductory text using a context that many adults are familiar with (not so much for high school and college students). If I had to choose, I would argue the book is more of a marriage book dressed up with economics. Even so, I imagine there is a decent-sized market for texts about marriage.

a. Here is the justification early in the book for why economics can help marriages:

We believe in economics because it doesn’t discriminate between the sexes, between who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” who communicates better and who talks worse. It doesn’t talk down to you or attempt to psychoanalyze. It doesn’t care who won the last fight or whose turn it is to control the remote. Instead, it offers dispassionate, logical solutions to what can often seem like thorny, illogical, and highly emotional domestic disputes.

3. Several things grated on me throughout the text:

a. The authors say they talked to a number of economists but they quote relatively few economists. Perhaps I am reading this too much like an academic but why not utilize more information form the experts?

b. The authors cite economic studies but often only cite one or two to illustrate a point. There is a lot more complexity to some of these concepts that one or two study (which can often be complex themselves).

c. The authors talk about how they collected data by interviewing couples and conducting a survey. However, they continually refer the survey as the “Exhaustive, Ground Breaking, and Very Expensive Marriage Survey.” This may be interesting the first time but not every time they talk about the survey results. Additionally, most of the case studies they present in the book seem to be middle- or upper-class couples that deal with middle- and upper-class problems of balancing work and family ambition, kids who are in too many activities, etc.

d. The writing style can be quite informal – I know this is aimed at a mass audience but I wonder how much of this comes from the authors themselves or from editors who suggested that they needed to find “their voice.”

4. So has anyone written a similar mass-market book utilizing sociological concepts? This would be a classic example of an attempt to use an everyday phenomenon to teach about a particular discipline.

Overall, some of the case studies are interesting (there are a lot of examples in here and this would make it easier for people to identify with something) and the idea that economic principles can help us understand our relationships is intriguing. But some of the recurring smaller issues kept me from being impressed and in the long run, I wonder if this isn’t just another book dispensing marital tips.

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