The One Where Tina Explains the Economics Behind Friends

By Tina Tomas (Creighton University)

Widely regarded to be one of the best shows in television history, Friends is about three young men and three young women who face life and love in New York.  Following these six through the tumults of dating, marriage, divorce, kids, and career changes, the show makes us laugh.

One fan favorite episode demonstrates a few big ideas of economics. “The One Where Ross Got High” presents a hilarious Thanksgiving celebration in which Chandler tries to win Monica’s parents over, Ross and Joey try to escape the dinner, and Rachel messes up the dessert. The situations present in this episode deal with incentives, tradeoffs, and specialization.

The things you do for the people you love…

Economic incentives are what motivates individuals to behave in a certain way. Different characters in the show face different incentives. Sex never fails to grab Joey Tribianni’s attention and Ross Geller is always looking for love. But despite their differing incentives, when Joey’s attractive roommate Janine invites them both to spend Thanksgiving with her and her “hot dancer” friends, Joey and Ross are both quick to accept the invitation, even at the cost of giving up their usual Thanksgiving tradition.

FriendsSex and love aren’t the only incentives existing in this episode. The way Ross’s parents view him means a lot to him, so when his reputation is on the line he attempts to save it by putting the blame on someone else. In college, after his parents catch the smell of weed in his room, they demand to know why Ross has been smoking. Of course, Ross quickly saves his image by telling them his best friend Chandler Bing was the one smoking.  (Chandler’s absence at the scene of the crime is accredited to his jumping out the window.) Eventually, though, the truth comes out…this is a sitcom after all. Sex, love, and reputation are all influential incentives that cause people to act in certain, predictable ways. People can do crazy things to get what they want.

For better or for worse?

While the boys are busy navigating incentives, the girls are learning the costs of trade-offs. Monica Geller is known for her delicious cooking skills and her love of hosting. Always the one to host Thanksgiving and prepare the meals, in this episode Monica lets Rachel Greene help out so that she can do other tasks. Little does she know that this trade-off will result in a disastrous dish. What was supposed to be a traditional English trifle dessert ends up including some rather unusual, decidedly not sweet ingredients—beef and peas.

The opportunity cost of Monica’s decision to opt out of making all the food is a delicious, satisfying dessert. Instead, everyone is forced to eat what Rachel made.

Divide and conquer.

Monica’s decision also thwarts Joey and Ross’s plans to leave the celebration early to go party with the “hot dancers.” Because the girls won’t let them ditch for some “hot dancers,” Joey and Ross decide to do everything in their power to speed up dinner. Specialization greatly increases productivity. Together Joey and Ross divide up tasks to avoid Rachel having to start over and delay them getting to Janine and her friends. Ross takes Rachel outside of the room so he can stall for Joey. Ross’s knowledge of Rachel – a major storyline on the show is their on-again, off-again relationship status – allows him to distract her better than anyone else. Being an actor, Joey teaches everyone how to pretend to like Rachel’s food. This division of knowledge allows everyone to stomach dinner without embarrassing Rachel, although she ends up finding out what she did wrong anyway. Still, Joey and Ross’s plan worked (for a little while) because they specialize in what each does best.

Never a dull moment during an episode of Friends, one might wonder why they make the choices they do. Not surprising to find some economic concepts connected to this group in such a prime time of their life.

Leave a Reply