Friday, July 18, 2008

"Weighting mistakes"

Via Andrew Sullivan comes this post by Jonah Lehrer that speculates that, at least for some home-buyers affected by the housing-mortgage crisis, their problem might be, paradoxically, that they thought too much about their decision:
Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands (and expert on unconscious thought), has done some cool studies that look at how people shop for homes, and how they often fall victim to what he calls a "weighting mistake". Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion in the suburbs, with a forty-five minute commute. "People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis writes. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad." What's interesting is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom.
Then, after citing some depressing statistics about (car) commuting, Lehrer, goes on to add:
According to Dijksterhuis, these people are making themselves miserable because they failed to properly "weigh" the relevant variables when they were choosing where to live. Because these deliberative homeowners tended to fixate on details like square footage or the number of bathrooms, they assumed that a bigger house in the suburbs would make them happy, even if it meant spending an extra hour in the car everyday. But they were wrong.
Our natural tendency is to want to satisfy wants, and that, in the abstract, isn't a bad thing. But when wants supercede or become mistaken for needs, then problems arise.

Not that I think that, as a cyclist, I've become an expert in all this--I can easily see, just from the vantage point of my desk, all sorts of things that I've wanted to have that aren't doing me a heck of a lot of good right now--but as I've said before, cycling has a way of helping to clarify the distinctions between wants and needs.

Anyway. Quite apart from whatever lessons this has for cyclists, I found this made for intriguing reading.


R. Sherman said...

The choice for space is perhaps one factor. I would say, however, that for many people, it is not so much extra space as it is school choice for kids. For example, the main reason the City of St. Louis is not attractive option for families, even though one can by a brownstone five bedroom walk-up for a couple of verses of "Hello Dolly" is that the St. Louis School System is abysmal. Many young people live in the lofts or "gentrified" areas early in life, only to move when they have kids.


John B. said...

Sure. I'd say that school quality is, or should be, one of those needs to be weighed. I think Lehrer's larger point isn't so much what exactly the needs are as much as what can happen when the desire to accommodate some rarely-occurring event begins to outweigh more practical concerns--one of which, I'd hope, would be schools, even if Lehrer doesn't specifically mention it. The calculus of home-buying becomes very complex very quickly, just as you suggest, once one beings taking into account the house's environs in conjunction with the house itself.