Division of Property, Gender, and the Endowment Effect

When you decide something is “yours” — or “ours,” if you’re happily married — a funny thing happens. Whether consciously or not, you start to treat that object as though it is worth more than an identical object that doesn’t belong to you. Psychologists call this the endowment effect, and they’ve proved in it dozens if not hundreds of studies.

In one great example, the researchers gave the participants two identical mugs and asked them to look the mugs over and agree that they were truly identical. Once they had been acknowledged as identical, the researchers gave the participants one of the mugs to drink out of, and ask them to wash it when they were done. Then they were offered a choice: take “their” mug home, or trade their mug for the other, identical mug…plus a dollar. 92% of participants chose to keep “their” mug, because keeping the mug they had already sipped from was more important than getting an extra dollar and taking home an un-sipped-from mug.

This is a huge factor in the division of property stage of a divorce, because each spouse comes into the divorce with a list of things that they consider “mine” and a list of things that are “theirs.” Generally speaking, as long as you’re not being spiteful or abusive, it’s easy to let your spouse keep anything that you agree is “theirs” — and very difficult to let go of anything you consider “mine.”

Perceived Ownership
One interesting wrinkle in the whole endowment effect phenomenon is that not all things promote the same feeling of ownership. People are generally quite strongly attached to the things they interact with often — smartphones, pets, even really nice pens — and not so much to things that they own passively, such as stock portfolios, silverware, or that collection of Magic: the Gathering cards you haven’t touched since college. And this is true even when the passively-owned thing is much more financially valuable than the ‘favorite’ thing!

And as with “theirs” and “mine,” it’s much easier to let go of a passively-owned thing than it is to get rid of something you interact with all the time, because your perceived ownership of that thing is much greater.

This leads to significant problems, of course, when both spouses put a particular thing in the “mine” and “favorite” piles simultaneously. But the results of those problems are, more often than not, that the man walks away with the thing in question. Is this proof of bias in the courtroom? No, it’s proof that men and women negotiate differently about stuff.

Gender and Negotiation in Property Division
Two more psychological facts as established in several studies from around the world:

  1. Women tend to think about a relationship the same way that all humans think about physical objects. They see a relationship as something that can be invested in, polished up, broken, mended, and even, to stretch the metaphor, repainted.
  2. Men, on the other hand, think about a relationship the same way that all humans think about rules. They see a relationship as a set of boundaries and allowances, not an independent thing — to the male mind, it’s not that a divorce represents the destruction of a valuable thing, it’s that it represents a change in the way you’re allowed to treat the person that used to be married to you.

Because of this, women tend to feel like they possess their relationship — they experience the endowment effect toward the marriage that is ending, making it much more of an emotional struggle to experience the dissolution of that thing. Furthermore, the more they ‘interact’ with that relationship, the stronger their perceived ownership, and the more they’re willing to take action to preserve the relationship as a thing. (This is why most female-initiated divorces are preceded by a period of increased distance and less interaction.)

Men, on the other hand, tend to think of the divorce more in terms of the loss of access to a person (not necessarily sexually, but in terms of conversation, assistance, purpose, and other relevant “gains” obtained by having that person around.) But you don’t really ‘own’ access. You don’t ‘own’ the rules that dictate what you are and aren’t allowed to do in a given situation. Thus, men will often get angry about a divorce, but once they’ve accepted that the terms of a relationship have changed, they don’t put much more effort into changing the way the relationship is thought of.

The end result is that women are more likely to make sacrifices in the name of minimizing damage to the relationship, which means men are more likely to walk away from any property negotiation with more items on their “list of stuff I want” checked off. The notable exception, of course, being custody of the child, particularly when the child is young — but then, the typical mother has ~9 more months of continuous interaction with the child than the typical father — we would expect them to see themselves having much more ‘ownership’ of the child than the father does (even ignoring all the other reasons why mothers have an easier time winning custody)!

Women’s feelings of ‘owning’ a marriage also leads to another fact that comes as a shock to many men: a woman who initiates a divorce has usually been trying for years to sustain a marriage that she sees as unfulfilling! More on that next week in the beginning of a series on the Realities of Divorce.

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