Friday, January 20, 2017

Calling Miss Manners

I don’t want to sound like a complete curmudgeon, so I will open this post about behavioral economics by praising Dan Ariely. Since members of his profession cannot resist the temptation to tell people how to conduct their lives, Ariely now offers an advice column in the Wall Street Journal.

Ariely’s column does not even approach the level of badness we see in New York Magazine’s Ask Polly, but, truth be told, if you are looking for advice you would do better to ask Miss Manners.

Recently, Ariely offered some sage advice. When you are facing a task that you would like to avoid, try developing a daily ritual, a consistent set of behaviors that ground you and shift your focus onto the task at hand.

For Ariely, it’s morning coffee. He makes it the same way with the same kinds of beans using the same utensils for the same mug.

He writes:

I adore my morning coffee, so I’ve transformed it into a daily ceremony by using the same mug, savoring the grinding of the beans, watching the coffee pour from the machine and smelling the aroma as it spreads throughout the room. I then take the cup to my office, sit at my desk and move to the important part: I connect this marvelous mug of coffee to a continuing task that matters deeply to me.

So far, so good. You can take that one to the bank.

But, then, we arrive at the last letter in his column. It piques our interest, and not for a good reason. Without further ado, here is Amy’s plaintive question:

Is love overrated? I am deeply in love with someone, but to be with them, I’ll have to change jobs and cities. Should I make these changes and hope that this love will last, or should I assume that this love, like most loves, is doomed to fade and not worth the risk?

You will have noted that Amy is a mentally challenged millennial. We are all happy to discover that she is in love with someone, but we are less than thrilled—for her, of course—to discover that this “someone” is a “them.”

Unless she is in love with a group of people—as in polyamory— she is using the plural pronoun in order to show that she is politically correct. Thus, that she does not want to offend those whose love is more idiosyncratic. In short, she is hiding the gender of her inamorato. Or, is it her inamorata?

The query is shrouded in confusion. Which ought to tell us to exercise great caution before addressing it. This does not deter Ariely from offering some less than illuminating advice. In his words:

Wait a few months, and if you still feel as ardent about your partner, take the chance. In general, the odds are very much against us when we start almost anything: a business, a book, an exercise regimen. But we often encourage people to do these things anyway, so why not for love? The odds are low that your love will burn as brightly in 10 years, but some risks in life are worth taking.

In other words, what the Hell! He has nothing to offer so he goes with love. What could be wrong about that? But, what does that have to do with behavioral economics? Wherefrom derives his expertise in matters of the heart?

Following your bliss does not sound like the best rationale. If Amy will be happy in the new city without her inamorato or inamorata then she might decide to make the move. But, she ought to learn how to make better decisions. And the path to better decisions must take account of the situation at hand. About that she tells us nothing at all.

Knowing how she feels tells us nothing. We want to know the nature of the relationship and whether or not the man in question—the laws of probability being what they are this is not most likely case-- is going to make her an honest woman at any time in the future. This ought not to be limited to the question of how true her love is. What about him? What has he offered? Has he offered anything beyond a plane ticket? Will they be living together? Will they be engaged, will they marry or will she become his official concubine? Without such understanding it's a bad bet.

Unfortunately for Amy, she is describing her dilemma and her relationship only in terms of her own feelings. This tells us that she has no real sense of what it means to be in a relationship. It’s not a good sign. True enough, love is overrated. Making decisions as though you are a human monad is also overrated. Without knowing about this relationship or the state of the negotiation, we ought to not to be offering advice.


Sam L. said...

Too many unknown unknowns to even have a chance at providing an answer to her question.

Trigger Warning said...

Ariely has descended from pop pseudoscience into economancy. He should open a funky little shop in West Hollywood.