Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I Invest in a New Chick Magnet (But Did I Make the Right Decision?)

When shopping for cars, most of us engage in months of careful research, only to drive off the lot in the first thing that appeals to our fancy. Last week I decided that it would be far more efficient, instead, to simply dispense with the research phase of the process.

“What the f... ?” I could only wonder, an hour later, as I sized up my new purchase in the parking space to my apartment complex.

Let’s see: I had neglected to ask about things like gas mileage and how to pop open the hood, much less what kind of engine was actually beneath the hood. Minor stuff. Okay, forgetting to scrutinize the cup-holder for possible design flaws, that was major, but better to err on the side of simplicity. Keep simple things simple.

According to Jonah Lehrer in “How We Decide,” the average American spends 35 hours comparing automotive models before making a decision. See? I’m a lot smarter than that. Let me explain:

On Tuesday, my trusty old beater - a 1992 Tercel (“The Chick Magnet,” pictured below) - died on me. Four years earlier, I went way over my budget in paying $800 for the thing. Then I made a five-dollar investment in a blanket to conceal the gashes in the back seat.

I know, I know. Excessive spending is a sign of mania, but I did get three good years out of the thing. (My first year, I didn’t drive it - minor technicality about not having driven in 30 years, but that’s another story.) Anyway, here I was, Tuesday of last week, with a dead Chick Magnet, and me living 30 miles out of town with no wheels.

No sense in panicking, I decided, once I got through with my obligatory Peter Finch in “Network” scene, the one where he fulminates, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!” (bless you director Sidney Lumet, RIP). Thursday morning, I got hold of a cab driver and we negotiated a flat rate to go shopping for used cars. “They say it’s best to buy a Japanese car,” I opened. (Who said I didn’t do my research?)

The cab driver (who was incidentally driving a Lexus) enthusiastically concurred.

We pulled into the first car lot on my list. Five VWs with silver paint were lined up in a row. “Get the car with the silver paint!” the two-year-old part of my brain screamed at me. But I’m way too sophisticated for that.

“Uh, German is kind of like Japanese,” I said tentatively to the cab driver. Yes, he agreed. Good enough for me. After all, they both lost World War II. I zeroed in on the one with a $4,999 price tag. One dollar under my budget. I could blow the rest on a 99-cent taco. No shortage of taco stands in this part of town.

The cab driver and I got in for a test drive. What do they call this thing? I asked him. It sounded like he said Pasada. A 1999 VW Pasada. Bigger than a VW Jedi. Clearly, the vehicle met all my major criteria, namely: It had an engine that started when I twisted the key in the ignition. Okay, the fact that the engine didn’t sound like a re-enactment of Pearl Harbor was slightly unnerving, but I could get used to that.

Plus, it’s got silver paint!

I test-drove one more car with silver paint, just to make sure. My cab driver suggested I try some other car lots in the neighborhood, but there was no sense in over-thinking this. Silver paint job, kinda Japanese, engine included. Good enough for me.

I called up my brother as the dealer was completing the paperwork. What kind of car is it? he asked. A Pasada, I replied. I checked the piece of paper in my hand. A Passat, I corrected. It’s even got a radio that works.

Jonah Lehrer’s book cites a series of studies by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis. The first study was simple and hypothetical: Subjects were presented with four different used cars based on four features, representing 16 pieces of information. One car, for instance, handled poorly but had lots of leg room. Then he gave his subjects a few minutes to contemplate their choices. More than half wound up picking the “best” car. Easy.

Then Dr Dijksterhuis distracted his second group of subjects, forcing them to make an unconscious or emotional decision. These hypothetical buyers made bad choices. Obvious, right?

Not so fast. This time, the buyers were provided with 12 features (such as cup holders and trunk space), totaling 48 pieces of information. Their brains couldn’t handle the overload, even when given time to think things through. Less than one-quarter chose the best car, worse than chance. But the group he distracted actually made the best choice 60 percent of the time. What gives?

Dijksterhuis followed up with real-world studies on all kinds of consumer products, plus further hypothetical exercises. The gist of his findings is that our brains are designed for choosing simple products such as toilet paper and vegetable peelers, where buyers can zero in on important things, such as price. Emotions can mess up your thinking, here, and lead to bad choices.

That all changes, though, when we’re buying a couch at IKEA. Will the couch, for instance, match the drapes? Will the cat scratch the leather? On and on, way too many things to think about. Inevitably - without input from our emotions - we are going to make the wrong decision.

Yes, we need to do our homework. Yes, we need to rationally sift through our options. But Dijksterhuis found an important qualification to this. When it’s a complex decision, we need to distract ourselves, let our thoughts marinate in our unconscious for awhile, then have faith in our feelings. According to Lehrer: “Complex problems ... require the the processing powers of the emotional brain, the supercomputer of the mind.”

Anyway, here I am stuck with a car that has defective cup-holder that doesn’t slide out. It’s also way too huge for me. But it handles beautifully and it’s a pleasure to drive (a totally alien experience to me), and I didn't exceed my budget. Plus, it just FEELS right.

Not to mention the silver paint job. My new Chick Magnet. Honestly, could I have made a better choice?


Tony the cretin said...

Ever read Damasio's Descartes Error. The who lizard/emotional part of the brain being important in decisions is discussed there. Basically, from what I gathered, being Spock (all reason) just doesn't work. The lizard part is important.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Tony. Sounds like another important book for my reading list. Definitely, all reason doesn't work. The rational mind, controlling the emotions, like a rider on an elephant, is basically a myth. The lizard part is important.

The Star Trek movie that came out two years ago, by the way, investigated both Spock's Vulcan and human side and the conflicts this entailed. The movie presented the two - reason and emotion - as either-or, but we know it is both-and. :)