Wives Listen but Husbands Don’t

Lambert here: Something to have served up at the holiday table….

By Johanna Mollerstrom, Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Ricardo Perez-Truglia, Associate Professor, Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley, and Dietmar Fehr, Assistant Professor at Heidelberg University. Originally published at VoxEU.

Over the past 50 years, there has been a progressive shift in economic research to learn how households make economic decisions in the real world. By sharing information and learning from each other, spouses can make better decisions for the household and for themselves. Using data from a survey experiment in Germany, this column documents significant gender differences in how economic information diffuses within the household.

About 50 years ago, the UK government introduced a policy that changed the beneficiaries of a subsidy to families with children from fathers to mothers. The prevailing economic models of the household at the time suggested that the policy change should have no effects – they viewed households as a primary unit that share all their information and make optimal decisions (c.f. Becker 1981). However, everyone who has ever been part of a family can probably agree that this assumption is not realistic. It turned out that the sceptics were right: it did matter who received the money. When mothers instead of fathers were the first to get their hands on the subsidy, it ended up being used differently. For example, the amount spent on children’s clothing went up whereas the amount spent on men’s clothing went down (Lundberg et al. 1997, Ward-Batts 2008).

Over the past 50 years, there has been a progressive shift in economic research to learn how households make economic decisions in the real world (see e.g. Ashraf 2009). A relevant question that has received comparably little attention so far is how households form beliefs about economic variables and, in particular, to what extent we can expect information sharing within the household in the belief-formation process. (That such beliefs matter in various circumstances is well documented. See e.g. Kenny and Georgarakos 2022.)

For example, a recent experiment with couples in Chennai, India, (Conlon et al. 2022) studies situations where the incentives of the household are aligned: i.e. it is in both parties’ best interest that correct information spreads. In the experiment, the husband or wife can get information about the number of differently coloured balls in an urn. They can pass this information on to their spouse, who did not have this information, and the spouse can subsequently use it to make an optimal guess about the colour of the ball that is drawn next. It turns out that there are barriers to information even in such a setting: while wives took the information discovered by their husbands into full consideration, husbands failed to do the same with information revealed to their wives.

That truthful within-household communication is hard to achieve in such an abstract game – and also in natural but extreme and distressing circumstances (Verwimp 2022) – begs the question: would gender differences in social learning appear also in a natural context? We address this question (Fehr et al. 2022a) by leveraging data from another study that examined how information about household-income rank at the national and the global level affect policies to tackle global inequality (Fehr et al. 2022b). Our study builds on a two-year incentivised survey experiment in 2017–18 with a representative sample of Germans. We repeatedly observe all household members’ beliefs about their household income rank and draw on exogenous variation in accurate information about these beliefs. This allows us to study information flows between informed and uninformed household members.

In a baseline survey, we asked respondents to state their beliefs about their household’s rank in the national and global income distribution (and paid them for the accuracy of their answers). All adult members of every household were interviewed in private, without the possibility to communicate with each other, so they could not share any information during the baseline survey even if they wanted to.

Figure 1 shows that subjects had significant misperceptions about their household’s position in the income distribution. Importantly, both men and women had similar degrees of misperceptions. Men underestimate their true income ranks by about nine percentage points, whereas women underestimate their income ranks by 10 percentage points.

Figure 1 Misperceptions in prior beliefs

Notes: Reproduction of Figure 1 from Fehr et al. (2022a). See the paper for more details.

Figure 2 zooms in at the household level and shows that while misperceptions are somewhat correlated between husbands and wives, they are far from perfectly so. This suggests that husbands and wives either see different information, or they share the information with each other but use it differently.

Figure 2 Correlation of misperceptions across husbands and wives

Notes: Reproduction of Figure 2.A from Fehr et al. (2022a). See the paper for more details.

After we elicited the baseline beliefs, we randomly selected half of the participants to receive accurate information about their household’s income rank. We randomised at the individual level to create variation within households so we could study both how individuals learn from information when they receive it directly, and also whether the information diffuses to other household members. Accordingly, we had households in which only the wife received the information but not their husbands, and vice versa. Moreover, there were households in which both husband and wife received the information or no one did.

We surveyed the households a year later, which gave the households plenty of time to stew over the information provided in the first survey. All participants were again asked to state their beliefs about their household rank (and were, again, paid for their accuracy). Participants were neither discouraged nor encouraged to share the information in the year between the two survey waves. When they took the first survey, they did not know that they or anyone else would be asked the rank question again a year later. Any discussion of the information provided to one spouse, but not the other, therefore arises completely organically.

Figure 3 summarises how individuals learn from information directly (i.e. when they receive it themselves) and indirectly (when their spouse receives the information). When respondents directly receive information about their true income ranks, the information has a significant and persistent effect on beliefs even after a whole year. More importantly, both men and women seem to incorporate the information to a similar degree when it is given directly to them. Figure 3 shows that, after one year, the learning rate was approximately 0.16 for both men and women. In other words, for each percentage point shock in information given directly to the respondent, the perceived income rank as measured a year later is higher by about 0.16 percentage points.

Figure 3 Direct and indirect learning from information

Notes: Reproduction of Figure 3.A from Fehr et al. (2022b). See the paper for more details.

However, we document a sharp gender difference in how men and women react to information discovered by their spouses: the pass-through of information from women to men is substantially lower than from men to women. More precisely, Figure 3 shows that when a wife receives the information indirectly, through her husband, the effect on her belief about income rank one year later (0.19 percentage points, 𝑝 = 0.01) is at least as strong as if she received the information directly. In contrast, when a man is indirectly informed about the true household income rank through his female partner, he does not adjust his beliefs one year later (-0.01 percentage points, 𝑝 = 0.91). The difference in the rates of indirect learning (0.19 for women vs. -0.01 for men) is statistically significant (𝑝 = 0.040).

Why do men and women react differently to information from their partners? It could come from gender differences in communication patterns. For example, it may be that men are more likely to talk about income than women. If that were true, men would not receive information about the income rank from their wives and thus could not update their beliefs. However, that is not what we see.

In the second survey wave, we included a question asking treated respondents whether or not they remembered sharing the information they got with other household members. While a sizeable number of respondents said they shared the information with other household members, we do not find any gender differences in the propensity to report having done so. We take this as an indication – but certainly no proof – that it may be the husbands’ capacity to listen in the household, rather than the wives’ unwillingness to share information, that is at play.

There is a lesson here for policymakers: if money or information should be directed to households (see e.g. Jain and Ilzetzki 2022 for a recent example), it matters who in the household it is directly targeted to.

References available at the original.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. GramSci

    «A study carried out by Johns Hopkins showed men are more than five times more likely to develop hearing loss relative to women.

    Women typically lose the ability to hear low-frequency sounds before high-frequency ones, while it’s the opposite for men. High-frequency hearing loss is among the most debilitating because it reduces speech recognition the most. Men may complain of difficulty hearing women’s voices while retaining the ability to hear a men’s deeper voices until the hearing loss progresses.»


    I *try* to listen to my wife, but whenever I succeed, it seems she’s telling me Putin is the reason for the world’s woes.

  2. SocalJimObjects

    ” When mothers instead of fathers were the first to get their hands on the subsidy, it ended up being used differently. For example, the amount spent on children’s clothing went up whereas the amount spent on men’s clothing went down (Lundberg et al. 1997, Ward-Batts 2008).”

    Someone forgot to speak to Mrs Watanabe. https://esgclarity.com/fearless-woman-the-original-influencer-mrs-watanabe/. And apparently Mrs Gupta will soon join the club.

    By the way, in Japan, it’s understood that the husband is to hand over all his earnings to the wife and in return he’ll get some spending money (kozukai). If that’s not listening to the wife, I don’t know what is.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      The situation in the Philippines is similar: hubby turns over his paycheck to wifey, and gets an allowance.

    2. Oh

      The husbands just burden their wives with bringing up their children including education, household duties etc. and the men are never home ’cause they’re slaves to their work. They get home late from work after drinking with their bosses, and wife makes dinner and keeps it hot for them (many times the husband has already eaten out). The woman takes care of the household budget and gives him some money outa his paycheck for his expenses. But I would not say that the men are listening to their wives. In many cases, the women get fed up and when the husband retires, the wife, takes the savings and leaves home.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Saw a shirt advertised through this site saying ‘My wife says that I have two faults. The first is I never listen to her. The second is something else.’ The truth is of course more complicated than this and where this article ends with the line ‘if money or information should be directed to households, it matters who in the household it is directly targeted to.’ I do not see the option suggested that both be targeted. Strange that. Why does one have to be preferred to the other? That only lays the groundwork for one to resent the other. But for a couple to do well, both must coordinate. I came across an English proverb several centuries old illustrating this by saying ‘He who would prosper must first ask permission of his wife.’ Truer words were never spoken.

  4. rob

    wow, what a pointless inquiry.

    “income rank”… a point or two difference…. who cares?
    Information that is useless, and even worse; de-motivational, depressing, confining, etc.
    Considering all the real ways, we as society; as individuals; coupled or not; need to process information so we can “handle our situation” , in whatever way we need to to try and resist the oppression coming from every angle(and the patriarchy is right up there in front, usually) under the sun. Do we really need to focus on how we compare to “the jones’s” , financially ?
    Maybe we need a social scientist view on this, not an economist…. really we need the anthropologists’ version. Cause we all really know, men don’t listen, in general. But, really, the myth that “women” are better, doesn’t hold up either… look at the political mess of “women in power”… the new boss, is the same as the old boss.
    All people are being “taught/conditioned” to go through life without examining it.

    1. ChrisPacific

      Yeah, there are a number of possible ways this could be interpreted. For example, it could be that believing that you are less well-paid relative to others than you actually are, and either not looking for evidence to the contrary or maintaining that belief in the face of it, is an advantage for career progression.

      There are also a bunch of potential confounding variables. For example, perhaps the change in posterior belief is not based on gender but role. It would be interesting to know whether the same pattern shows up among couples where the woman is the primary income earner and the man stays home and manages the household, looks after the kids etc.

      Also the result is only significant at 95% confidence level, and only barely. That’s enough to suggest a possible result but not enough to rigorously demonstrate one. The authors should formulate a proper hypothesis and get some statistician help if they want to do it properly (that said, they are economists, so too much rigor might be career limiting).

  5. John Beech

    +44 years married so ‘some’ experience. Managed the household budget for about 3 months early on and screwed it up beyond belief, humbly asked her to take back the job, and stood back. By and large this has worked for us. No, not a matter of asking for permission to spend, more like I’d like to have this and we discuss it. And not in the position of supplicant humbly asking, e.g. mother-may-I? but more like here’s how we can. And again, no, I’m not on a allowance in the Japanese manner of the term, nor have I ever been. Meanwhile, I’ve never wanted for toys and we have money in the bank. How much and where? I can find out by asking. Hardly ever do, just sign what’s put in front of me. Means if she falls in love with her boyfriend and leaves me taking all the cash assets, then I guess I’ll start over. Not worried because I know ‘how’ to make money and can readily enough do it yet again (serial entrepreneur made and sold three companies before this one). Major point being, however, I’d really miss her and would probably ask her to manage my money despite having someone else in her life. Strange but true.

    1. polar donkey

      My wife and I keep our money separate. I pay mortgage, internet, and my son’s autism therapy. She pays utilities, food, and kids clothing. We don’t have car payments. I buy good used cars with cash. It works well for us, especially since I don’t go out, buy barely any clothes and no vices, aside from some fantasy football. I sowed my wild oats when I was younger. We’re older parents, late 40’s with 8 and 6 y/o’s, so handling money/decisions are pretty smooth at this stage in our lives. I think age and experience matters greatly when you get married.

  6. Questa Nota

    That posterior belief graph is subject to misinterpretation.
    Men believe in women’s posteriors and that distracts them. /s

    1. Tom Pfotzer


      Questra, I had to wade through all those graphs and stuff till someone finally explained it in terms I can understand.



      and in other news:

      Women would allocate money differently than men. Does that actually surprise anyone?

      Women listen more? No, sorry. Women listen more to stuff they’re interested in, and listen less to stuff they’re not. Men seem to do the same thing.

      Although women put in more effort pretending to listen and be interested in what they’re actually not than men seem to. That, I believe, is actually true.

      I also note that women seem to be better at grumbling about / feeling put upon when men don’t behave as-expected …. than men are.

      I think that’s our problem, guys: we need become better at acting put-upon.

      And this notion of turning your paycheck over to someone else, and getting an “allowance” back…did you marry your Mom? Where does that idea come from?

      In this world of 2-earner households, I’m thinking that relic should be racing “ladies first” out the door, and into the blessed mists of the forgotten.

      I’m hopeful that these remarks will encourage other people – men and women – to make peace with our differences, maybe even celebrate them, and move on to some new territory.

  7. Mikel

    It seems like the study / experiments demonstrated more about relationship dynamics than gender.
    Men have had mothers and female teachers in their lives.
    I would think that if gender was the focus of the study, a wider age range of participants would have been used and it may have required more experiments/studies with information coming to the participants in various settings.

    Having information that others don’t have is also associated with power.

  8. Roger Blakely

    What this article is not taking into account is the reality of intersexual dynamics. The message that we get from polite society is “happy wife, happy life” and that men should listen to women. The reality of intersexual dynamics is the opposite. The term that we use in the manosphere is “holding frame”. A man must hold frame in order to keep his woman attracted to him.

    The problem that every man has is that he is playing a constant game of perception management with his woman’s lizard brain. A man is not in a relationship with a woman; he is in a relationship with her lizard brain. Her lizard brain is what controls her attraction to him.

    Andrew Tate. Women want Andrew Tate. Andrew Tate is violent. He is tall. He is rich. He is dominant. He has a harem of women. Women would rather be part of Andrew Tate’s harem than have husbands who listen to them.

    That’s why polite society has to cancel Andrew Tate. He is telling the truth.

    You can find a crop of videos on social media of women complaining that there are no good men. What these women mean by good men is rich, tall, dominant, masculine men. These women make fun of nice guys for having bought the lie told to them by polite society that women want men who listen to them.

    1. Mikel

      Women in Andrew Tate’s harem would rather be in his “harem” than have a partner that listens to them…

      Important distinction.

      And men with an attraction to the type of woman that is in some dude’s harem, have a tendency to think that’s the only type of woman that matters.
      That’s their problem. Not a problem with “women”.

    2. Mikel

      Seeing that this guy Tate in the entertainment business, before he got busted for trying to increase his income through trafficking, my first impression is that he used professional actresses and models to sell the perception he’s selling.
      Then he got greedy, decided to cut costs, and got into trafficking

    3. semper loquitur

      Really? I think you need to get off of social media and date more. I’m short, broke, and used to wear a lot of eye-liner and skinny jeans and I got around.

      1. TimH

        There’s the old joke about how a woman can’t find a reasonable looking, reasonably intelligent guy to date in San Francisco. ‘Cos those men have already got boyfriends…

    4. Boysdontcry

      Oh god. No corner of the internet seems to be safe from that man’s stans and weaponised misogynistic BS unleashed as spam to interfere with the trafficking investigation. Never thought NC would be hit.

  9. TimH

    These women make fun of nice guys for having bought the lie told to them by polite society that women want men who listen to them.

    That’s fine. The lizard brain women can stick with their lizard brain men.

  10. semper loquitur

    I’m pretty much done reading anything that uses the weasel-word “gender” when sex is the proper term. It’s simultaneously a marketing device, a virtue signal, and a symptom of social contagion. It tells you nothing concrete about the people involved. It’s unchecked metastization, with next to no pushback from media, academics, or the general public, has tanked my already low opinion of society. Dumbest timeline ever.

    1. ArchieShemp

      Maybe you should spend some significant time in other cultures. Then you’d see, maybe, why it’s made sense to say that difference in sex is about biological difference, and differences in gender are about what different cultures make of apparent biological differences.

      1. semper loquitur

        Fascinating, you both support my point and miss my point in the same comment. The fact that gender means all different sorts of things in different cultures is exactly why it’s not useful in the study provided above. Perhaps I should spend some significant time in all the other cultures to try to understand what the authors meant?

        And I’m not critiquing the correct usage of gender, I’m referring to it being pasted over the word sex. For the reasons I listed above. These things need to be clarified. Words have power, right?

  11. Mildred Montana

    Wives Listen, Husbands Don’t

    Husband: What’s the problem, honey?
    Wife: I don’t want to talk about it. (That is a woman’s code for “I really want to talk about it, but I want you to drag it out of me.”)


    Wife: Betty and I are not getting along.
    Husband: Okay, I’ll talk to Betty about the problem. (Oops, wrong answer. Wife doesn’t want a quick solution, she just wants to talk to hubby at length about the difficulties.)

    Always dangerous to generalize in this age of PC, but women—usually—want to talk about 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 while men prefer to offer 𝘢𝘥𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘦. And advice, from the woman’s perspective, ignores her feelings. Not the point of the conversation at all.

    My experience anyway.

      1. Hayek's Heelbiter

        Currently reading Mars and Venus Together Forever, also by John Gray, and found it life changing and life simplifying, from my partner to simple social conversation.
        In general, women love to vent, especially about YOU and social situations. They DON’T WANT solutions.
        Instead of instantly going into guy mode, pondering the situation from every angle and responding, “You have a problem, and here’s the solution,” simply nod your head from time to time and cluck sympathetically. Works in 99% of these conversations.
        Absolutely worst case scenario: The woman in my ideal template couple was pregnant and miscarried.
        At some point, my male friend, “I don’t know it’s terrible, but don’t worry. We’ll try again and have another baby.”
        Problem solved?
        Whoa! BUZZZZZ. Wrong answer. My ideal template couple split up irrevocably a few weeks later.

  12. JEHR

    Canada used to have a Family Allowance that was paid to the wife (in her name too) for each child she had. This money was not very large but with careful planning could pay for clothing and other necessities that the children needed. Best thing ever! Now the children are taken care of by giving the “family” (read husband) a child tax credit which is not the same thing as money-in-hand. Notice the article does not indicate that the mother’s name was on the cheque. By the way, we have a lot of child poverty in Canada now that we did not used to have. I think there is a connection.

    1. Roger

      A child tax credit cannot be used by the poor, as they don’t earn enough to claim the credit. A great way of increasing poverty. I remember my mother getting such a child allowance when I was raised in the UK, the right wing hated it as it was a universal benefit and was therefore supported by the middle class as well as the poor.

      In Ontario, the Conservative Premier Harris slashed benefits to the poor and the current one is doing so in a very quiet hidden way (making it much harder to claim and cutting benefits off for no reason and then requiring a lengthy appeal to get them reinstated). Together with the loss of well paying manufacturing jobs no wonder poverty is increasing.

  13. ArvidMartensen

    Perhaps this has more to do with the gender status imbalance in households.

    Males are given the message from birth that they are superior, and that they must act as males to stay superior. One of the ways to do this is to not be influenced by women, the inferior sex. An attitude illustrated by pay rates https://giwl.anu.edu.au/gender-pay-gap. The pay gap has been a constant in the western world in my lifetime, and male dominated professions are still the best paid. Almost nothing has changed in decades and in fact it might now be getting worse.

    And in health care https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2018/07/23/women-under-treated-for-heart-attack-die-at-twice-the-rate-of-me.html (because, dammit, men are important!).

    And what happened in 2020 and 2021 with Covid? You guessed it https://grattan.edu.au/report/womens-work/

    If males have been brought up to believe that they are more intelligent, more capable and are worth more in society than women, then in what universe are they going to take any notice of the blatherings of their female partner.. Listening to a woman just diminishes their status. Who gives voluntarily gives up advantages?

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      There are many, many men that never bought into that story-line of female inferiority, and aren’t real comfortable being tarred with the broad-brush social condemnation of all things male, or white, etc. that seems, here in the U.S., to be the national past-time.

      I think it’s time for some useful discrimination, such that we can identify and sort people based on their actual, delivered behavior – what they do – to sort friend from foe.

      What I’m seeing is the reverse of what you postulate. The dominant story-line in the progressive world is that men don’t listen to women, and I’m seeing at least as much of the “women don’t listen – actually listen to, actually _observe_ men” phenomenon.

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