The concept of opportunity costs—the loss of potential gains from alternatives not chosen when a mutually exclusive choice must be made—is one of the most important concepts in the field of economics. But the concept is not well appreciated in the field of psychology.
One reason for its absence is the sheer difficulty of calculating opportunity costs that occur in metrics other than money. Consider mate choice. Choosing one long-term mate means forgoing the benefits of choosing an available and interested alternative. But how are non-monetary benefits calculated psychologically?
The complexities are multiple. The benefit-bestowing qualities of passed-over mates are many in number and disparate in nature. And there are inevitable tradeoffs among competing and incommensurate alternatives. Sometimes the choice is between a humorless mate with excellent future job prospects and a fun-loving mate destined for a low-status occupation; or between an attractive mate who carries the costs of incessant attention from others versus a mate who garners little external attention but with whom you have less sexual chemistry. Another intangible quality also factors into the equation—the degree to which competing alternatives appreciate your unique assets, which renders you more irreplaceably valuable to one than the other.
Uncertainty of assessment surrounds each benefit-conferring quality. It is difficult to determine how emotionally stable someone is without sustained observation through times bad and good—events experienced with a chosen mate but unknown with a foregone alternative. Another complication centers on infidelity and breakups. There is no guarantee that you will receive the benefits of a chosen mate over the long run. Mates higher in desirability are more likely to defect. Whereas less desirable mates are sure bets, more desirable partners represent tempting gambles. How do these mating opportunity costs enter into the complex calculus of mating decisions?
Despite the difficulties involved in computing non-monetary opportunity costs, probabilistic cues to their recurrent reality over evolutionary time must have forged a psychology designed to assess them, however approximate these computations may be. Although mating decisions provide clear illustrations, the psychology of opportunity costs is more pervasive. Humans surely have evolved a complex multifaceted psychology of opportunity costs, since every behavioral decision at every moment precludes potential benefits from alternative courses of action.
Many of these are trivial—sipping a cappuccino precludes downing a latte. But some are profound and produce post-decision regret, such as missed sexual opportunities or lamenting a true love that got away. The penalties of incorrectly calculating mating opportunity costs can last a lifetime.