05/08/2012 07:00:00

Notes from the Back Row: "What Parents Want—Evidence from Child Adoption"

What do parents want—aside from kids who come home on time and never talk with their mouths full—and why is an economist trying to answer that question? Because, at its heart, economics is all about the process of making choices. And while places like the New York Stock Exchange centralize the process of matching offers to sell with bids to buy, decentralized matching processes—finding the right job, a dream house, and even true love—play much bigger roles in our lives. Studying these processes is no mean feat, however. Data on people's collective behavior—median home prices by state, city, or even zip code, for example—is often pretty easy to come by, but the specific bits of data that led up to any individual decision—the purchase of that blue ranch house on this corner for this particular price—generally are not.

Caltech professor of economics Leeat Yariv and her colleagues found a decentralized matching process in which all the information available to each participant was recorded every step of the way, along with every decision that each participant made. The data, generated from a web-based adoption facilitator that acts as a go-between for prospective parents and birth mothers, included not only the genders, ethnicities, and marital status of all the adults involved, but the gender, ethnicity, and time to birth of the infants. In her Watson Lecture on February 15, 2012, Yariv shares her conclusions about what parents really want—as deduced from their individual choices—and discusses how policies that bar same-sex couples or single parents from adopting affect the matching process.

"What Parents Want—Evidence from Child Adoption" is available for download in HD from Caltech on iTunes U. (Episode 8)

Written by Douglas Smith