Becher & Dadush paper on relationships as consumer products

Shmuel I. Becher of Victoria University of Wellington and Sarah Dadush of Rutgers have written Relationship as Product: Transacting in the Age of Loneliness. Here's the abstract:

Behavioral economists and social psychologists distinguish between two main types of relationships. One type is “exchange relationships,” which are based on mutual benefit and economics principles. The second type is “communal relationships,” which are based on caring, kindness, support, and affection.

The law has been slow to incorporate this imperative distinction. Importantly, it overlooks the reality in which businesses are selling consumers not only products or services, but also “communal” or “social” relationships. We dub this phenomenon “relationship as product.”

Relationship as product leads to various negative outcomes. It makes consumers more likely to behave emotionally rather than rationally, and to lower their guards. It encourages consumers to spend more money, time, and attention-energy on products and services. It can also contribute to a biased and unhealthy perception of human relationships. At a societal level, relationship as product damages trust and decreases overall well-being, and has negative effects on workers, the environment, and a competitive economy. By selling relationship as product, firms also undermine the solidarity ties that bind communities.

This Article marks a first attempt to explore the problematic aspects of relationship as product from a legal and policy perspective. Part I of this Article illustrates how firms have made relationships a product. Part II explains the forces that account for the rise of relationship as product, including loneliness and social isolation, deteriorating levels of trust, the pursuit of well-being, and exploitation of cognitive biases. Part III explains why relationship as product can be viewed as a defective product, which harms individual consumers and society at large. Part IV makes recommendations for expanding consumer law and policy to address these challenges.

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