The Theory of Social Obligation

June 22, 2007

Friends keep wanting to invite us to showers, bachelor parties, rehearsal dinners, weddings. Where does this sense of obligation come from? When did it become socially unacceptable to say no? I find that girls are terrible at discriminating on weddings to go to. Obviously they should go to their brother’s wedding, but that does not mean they should go to the weddings of all their friends. Moreover, I wonder if they actually get any real utility out of going to the event or if it’s a sense of obligation that takes them there. Worse, somehow it’s not acceptable for them to go alone; so you are dragged to these boring events where you know no one. Frankly I would rather be doing something very important like playing tennis or video games 🙂

One theory could be that the inviters are using whether you accept to go or not as a proxy for how much you value them or your relationship. It follows that the less inviting their event is (distance, length, cost), and the more hurdles you have to navigate, the greater the strength of the relationship. If a set of bath towels didn’t fulfill my obligation, then hopefully travelling to Ohio did.

Separately, I can reluctantly accept that people want weddings, but why is there a need to celebrate over and over again with engagement parties, bachelor parties, etc. It’s all the more interesting that the probability of having a bachelor party is much higher than the probability of having a 10 year anniversary party, which arguably is more of a cause for celebration – potentially because you don’t want to spend that much if you have children to take care of – proving that this is an exercise in narcissism.

The cost of this narcissistic trip averages out to $27,000. In the present day, with individuals marrying older, there is a greater inclination for couples to pay for their own wedding. For most people this will mean they are starting their lives together in debt or with little savings. Since financial issues can cause some of the greatest strain on a marriage, is it possible that the wedding itself leads to divorce? (Where’s Freakonomics when you need it?) By boycotting the wedding one may be increasing the success of the marriage.

If you want to get out of any obligation here is my favorite excuse: “I have a family obligation” – no one will challenge you on that. Note that this only works when you are single, your girlfriend will challenge that one 🙂

This article was written with Nicole Blank.

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