Making good decisions may be a science, but living with them is an art
By Michael Good | House Calls
My grandmother was born in 1902. Or 1903, as she liked to pretend — because, well, who doesn’t want to feel a little younger?
When she reached her 80s, my grandmother began to rethink this strategy, however, deciding that age had its advantages. After all, everyone said she looked 10 years younger. Or 11.
At her funeral, my father recalled my grandmother’s confidence, her air of authority, her unshakable sense of self. Over the years he had visited her at her various places of employment, and, he said, “No matter where she worked, no matter what her position, my mother was always in charge.”
She began her education at a tony French boarding school — but finished at Brooklyn Elementary in South Park. My great-grandfather traveled frequently between England and the U.S., and lived in a number of places: Arizona, where he was an engineer in a gold mine; Los Angeles, where he was a “businessman” — no telling what that might entail; San Diego, where he was the vice president of a building company. He was brokering a livestock deal — supplying horses to the British Army — when he died suddenly in 1915 in San Diego. Soon after, my grandmother went to work at the Showley Candy factory. Her brother, my great-uncle, got a job herding cattle on a ranch in Miramar.
My grandmother liked to give advice, whether it was welcome or not. She telephoned her daughter-in-law (my mother) every day. My mother took her advice with a degree of equanimity, although she complained once about my grandmother’s prescribed method for making a proper cup of tea.
“She insists that you fill the teapot with cold water from the tap,” my mother said. Using cold water struck her as illogical. “One way or another it is going to get hot, so why not speed up the process by starting off with hot water?”
I thought of my grandmother’s tea recipe this March when the city of Flint, Michigan declared its water again safe to drink. Grandma’s folk wisdom had a basis in science, as the water officials of Flint learned. They changed the source of the city’s water supply, but failed to properly treat it, and ended up creating a caustic condition that caused lead to leach from the aging city pipes. Hot water can have a similar, if lesser, affect on old lead pipes.
My grandmother was full of other folk wisdom, not all with a scientific basis. She thought the size and shape of a pregnant woman’s belly could indicate the gender of the child. She thought there was no excuse to be unemployed, when there were so many job openings listed in the newspaper classifieds. She once told me, after my cousin announced she was going to get married to someone she’d only recently met, “I don’t know why she doesn’t just live with him first. Then she’d find out if they could get along.”
Today, this sounds like pretty good advice. But she said it in 1974, as I was driving her home from church.
When I was in college, I began to see my grandmother as part of a dying breed — old-fashioned, uneducated people who made their decisions based on tradition, intuition and the wisdom of crowds. You couldn’t really argue with her, because there was no logic to her opinions and actions. Social scientists call her thinking heuristic — decision-making based on past experience and intuition, rather than research and reason. Cavemen thought heuristically. Hunters and gatherers thought heuristically. Subsistence farmers thought heuristically. Heuristic thinking dominated decision making for tens of thousands of years, until the dawn of the 20th century, and the rise of science, technology, mass production, factory farming, public education and the public library.
After she died, I discovered a few things about my grandmother, including a husband I didn’t know about (there were four, all of whom she outlived). In the garage I found a newspaper clipping from 1972, the year she bought her house on Granada Avenue. According to the article, “young people” were buying houses in North Park and “fixing them up” to fit today’s modern lifestyle.
My grandmother, who found inspiration in the young, took this news to heart. But the changes she made to her 1920 Prairie-style bungalow seem ill-advised and old-fashioned today: Shag carpet, popcorn ceilings, 2-inch-wide Venetian blinds (complete with heavy wooden valences). But she was not alone. Everyone in the neighborhood was modernizing. They tore out the crown molding, took off the bookcase doors and removed the columns that divided the living and dining rooms.
Years later, when I started restoring many of those features to houses like those my great-grandfather had built, I had one particular client, who would say, every time we discovered a new travesty devised by the previous owner, “What were they thinking?”
At first, I tried to make sense of the senseless. I chalked it up to market forces, and fashion trends, and the human need for change. Finally I just surrendered: They were insane.
Dan Ariely, in his recent book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” offers a more scientific answer.
Despite the advances in science, education, technology and the changes in our modern lifestyle, we’re still thinking heuristically. Ariely argues we aren’t even making decisions, we are being herded around by marketing experts like the cattle my great-uncle drove to slaughter in Arizona. We’re getting lassoed by advertising, by signage, by architecture — even by something as simple as the opt-out box on the forms we fill out.
Ariely offers an example: organ donation. Our preference for organ donation can be guided by the way our options are presented, not by some sort of higher ideal. If the form requires you to check a box to opt out of donating your organs, you will choose to donate your organs — because humans have an aversion to checking boxes. Whole nations, according to Ariely’s research, have chosen to donate their organs simply because they couldn’t be bothered to check a box. When Ariely and his researchers interviewed customers exiting the DMV in a country where they were required to take action to opt out, they explained their decision in terms of altruism. But the truth was: They just didn’t want to check the box.
In the 19th century, as factory owners were trying to turn workers into automatons, economists were developing theories based on the assumption that humans were rational beings. They created a model human, the “Economic Man.”
“Economic Man makes logical, rational, self-interested decisions that weigh costs against benefits and maximize value and profit to himself,” Craig Lambert explained in Harvard magazine. “Economic Man is an intelligent, analytic, selfish creature who has perfect self-regulation in pursuit of his future goals and is unswayed by bodily states and feelings. But Economic Man has one fatal flaw: he does not exist.”
Our country’s economic policy and social programs are based on the myth of the Economic Man. But whether at the DMV or the ballot box, men and women are not checking boxes based on their enlightened self-interest. They are acting on emotion and past experience. They are following the human herd, like hunter-gatherers racing to feed on the bush with the blue berries, because that’s where everyone else is chowing down. We do the same thing today, patronizing the restaurant with the line out the door.
Bureaucrats are particularly fond of Economic Man. He makes for neat public policy. After the collapse of the banking industry in the early 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created, ostensibly, to save homeowners, lenders and homebuilders. Instead it created a banking and housing industry based on a logical homebuyer that didn’t exist. The bureaucrats at the FHA have turned what was once a qualitative decision into a quantitative one. They have changed the definition of home and have fueled the house-flipping frenzy that is destroying the character of our pre-war bungalow neighborhoods.
Before the advent of the FHA, a house’s value was agreed upon by the seller and buyer, based on qualities of the house. Cost of materials might be considered. The character of the neighborhood could be part of the calculation. Size was measured by the number of rooms. But the buyer was paying for something less tangible: the ambience that was created by the architect, builder and all the various craftsmen who contributed to the quality of the house. The actual price could be a complicated calculation, since there was often some horse-trading involved (sometimes involving actual horses).
The bureaucrats at the FHA changed all that. They sought to quantify a house’s value, through the measurement of square footage. Beauty, utility, and craftsmanship were not factors. The FHA hated all that stuff. They wanted to keep it simple, and quantifiable. A builder could be denied a loan because he put in too many shutters.
Houses are now assets, and the herd mentality has taken over their appearance and use. Real estate agents recommend white walls and minimal, low-key décor, to offend no one and appeal to the maximum number of buyers. Homeowners see how an open house is decorated (by checking the internet) and decorate their home similarly — whether or not they plan to sell any time soon.
Some of my clients are making decisions about their homes — the place where they create their family, their lives, their memories — based on tiny images on their smart phones. When a house flipper from out of state, financed by foreign capital, who is completely uneducated about the basics of design and architectural history, tears down the walls between the kitchen, dining and living rooms of a house he bought on the courtroom steps and plans to put back on the market at twice the price, my client holds out his phone to me and says, “I was thinking about something like this.”
At the turn of the 20th century, you could learn how to design a house at the public library. Or you could take a class at the YMCA from one of the country’s greatest architects, Irving Gill. Universities taught design and architecture. Even junior highs taught “industrial design,” which included drawing furniture, houses and decorative objects. Today, television and web shows have replaced the library, the university and the architectural drafting class. We’re learning how to determine value in our lives from “Flip or Flop” and the Property Brothers.
Reality TV and the internet have also created a surplus of amateur critics. Due to the anonymity and animosity of the web, these busybodies feel comfortable offering their uneducated, unqualified opinions. The internet has turned America into one giant small town, dominated by mean-spirited gossips. Only the most steely souls dare to swim against this crowd.
When her driving began to take on a menacing quality (to others), I became my grandmother’s chauffeur, taking her to church and plays at The Old Globe, where she had been a volunteer for about four decades. As the years went by, she found getting in and out of my car increasingly difficult, and I had to offer more of an assist. (I was always surprised at the fierceness of her grip.) Still, she continued to survey her accomplishments with an unwavering sense of pride.
“We did it,” she would say, once she was standing at the curb. “And we’re glad.”
This seems a good attitude to me for anyone making a tough decision, for example to restore their house to its original appearance rather than turn it into an empty cavernous white space with the ambience — if not the aroma — of a craft brewery tasting room. After all, original never goes out of style. Even if the Property Brothers don’t see it that way.
At a certain point, we all have to make tough decisions, based on careful study and consideration, ignoring the half-baked wisdom of troglodytes. And whatever decision you make, social scientists would agree with me on this — or at least I’m going to choose to believe that — you would do well to take my grandmother’s advice: stick with it, celebrate it, own it. Do it and be glad. One of the great accomplishments in life is making a world of your own and then living in it, satisfied, at peace with the life you have made.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.