What behavioral economics has to say about domestic violence

Abusive relationships are a difficult subject to study or write about. From the perspective of cops, prosecutors, abuse counselors, and policy makers, one of the most frustrating problems is the cyclical nature of abusive relationships. Stories of violence followed by break-up followed by reconciliation are commonplace.

Standard economics theory offers a number of explanations for this cycle. First, women could leave and then return in response to changes in the likelihood of violence. Second, women could leave and use a violence report to police as a tool to improve their bargaining position in the relationship. If they wanted to continue the relationship but could hide this preference from their partner, the threat could be seen as credible. Third, women may not have much information about opportunities outside their current relationship, and return after they find them unsatisfactory. Fourth, a rational theory like Gary Becker’s view on addiction or David Laibson’s cue-theory on consumption may be able to explain the problem.

But a pair of Brown economists, Anna Aizer, Pedro Dal Bó, find these explanations lacking. In their paper “Love, Hate, and Murder,” (gated copy here), they point out that many women who initially say that they want to end a relationship eventually return to their batterers, and that many underestimate the probability of returning. Instead, they propose a staple of behavioral economics: People who exhibit time inconsistency.

The victim’s preferences change with time from the battering incident. That is, right after a battering incident, while in shock and fear, a woman’s valuation of the relationship is low but increases as time passes. This is consistent with empirical evidence on how emotional states affect the desirability of different goods or actions…This model can explain how a woman might leave her partner after a battering incident with the intention of not returning, but after some time, her emotional attachment resurfaces and she returns.

Reducing domestic violence, then, means devising a commitment device that can help a woman’s future self follow through on a pledge her present self made in the aftermath of an violent episode. The authors then argue that a “no-drop” prosecution policy is one such device. Adopted in 48 major American cities that cover about 15 percent of the U.S. population, this policy stipulates that once a woman brings charges against a batterer, a prosecutor will continue pursuing the case regardless of the woman’s future request to drop the charges. “In this way,” the authors say, “no-drop policies offer a commitment device for women who want to terminate a violent relationship but fear that their intentions may change.”

The authors test their theory with a group of statistical models using data from those 48 cities between the years 1979-1996 (controlling for other factors like population, income, social service availability, homicide rates, and welfare benefits). They find both an increase in reporting on the order of 14-18 percent, and a drop in the number of men purposefully murdered by romantic partners, “a large fraction of whom have documented histories of battering.”

Our finding that no-drop policies reduce the number of men murdered by intimates provides evidence that battered women will move away from an extreme type of commitment device – murder – when a less costly one is offered in the form of no-drop prosecution.

Unfortunately, the authors find no evidence that no drop policies reduce the number of women killed by romantic partners or the number of women admitted to the hospital after an assault. These results suggest that the declines in men murder by wives or girlfriends cannot be explained by a reduction in the number of violent relationships due to no-drop policies.

In essence, the effects from these policies fall primarily on one side of the relationship, the battered female side. Women are more likely to report violence (and presumably get out of these unhealthy relationships), and less likely to rely on desperate choices like murder. But abusive men are undeterred by the legal threat. They authors do not say so, but their recurring abuse might be expected. After all, they are already being prosecuted.

Hat tip: Visible Hand

One Response to “What behavioral economics has to say about domestic violence”

  1. emigrl Says:

    As an advocate for survivours of domestic violence and a loyal reader of Nudge, I want to see no-drop option implemented in the true paternalistic libertarian sense: an option, not a mandate. In other words, victims should be offered a choice as to whether to make her reporting “no-drop” or not, let’s say within three days of reporting. At least I want such a policy given a trial run before a mandatory no-drop policy is adopted everywhere. Victims dropping prosecution after a period to return to the abuser only to be battered again is only half of the problems; the other half is that once the abuse is reported, things often gets out of hands of the survivours in classic paternalistic way that does not work for many of them.

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