Relative Value Judgements

I recently downloaded an application called Delicious Library when I found myself having to pare down my selection of books to take on my move to New York. The program has the ability to read the barcode on the back of a book via the camera built in to a laptop, and automatically import the title, photo, and other information about the book. I soon found myself intoxicated by the periodic beep signaling that the barcode on the back of my book had been successfully recognized. After importing some a hundred or so books, I considered what I had just done and why. I suppose others who frequently lend their books, or have far more extensive libraries would find more use than me, but I had really just spent 30 minutes waving my books in front of my computer.

Having just read the first chapter of Predictably Irrational, I realized I had just judged the value of the software using a relative, rather than absolute frame of reference. Dan Ariely suggests that it is easier to judge whether one thing is better than another, rather than if it is good in an absolute sense. I think part of the allure of Delicious Library is that it takes the laborious process of entering ISBN numbers by hand and completely automates it. Thus the novelty prompts a useless comparison: “holding the book up to the camera for a second is so much easier than the tedious, error-prone process of typing in information.” The logical question of course should be “does having this database of information help me?”

The bottom line is that a feature need not provide real utility to all potential users–the mere potential is enough to draw people in. I think the same dynamics are what drive the sales of much new technology. Consumers are deluged by products capable of doing amazing things and distracted from asking the simple but important question: “Will this actually improve my life?”

Does place matter?

While reading the book Rapt by Winifred Gallagher (or more accurately, listening to in the car on a long road trip), I found chapter 8, “Decisions — focusing illusions,” partuclarly interesting.  The main thesis of the book is that we shape our lives by what we choose to focus on, or not focus on.  Furthermore, we are most fulfilled when we are intently focused on challanging things, and least fulfilled when we have no focus, instead allowing our minds to be tossed about on the waves of media, sights, thoughts, relationships, etc.  Chapter 8 reviews the concept of ‘focusing illusions’ by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning psychologist.  Kahneman claims that we focus on the most notable features of a place, such as California, believing the beautiful weather and topography must surely make for a happier life there than say, Iowa.  When we make a decision, we forget that we will soon adapt and forget about where we are living.  99% of our lives are spent doing basically the same things and are unaffected by place.  Kahneman found that people living in California and those living in the midwest were approximately as happy.  It is not until we think about the actual place that we become unhappy (if we’re living somewhere ‘boring’) or believe we are happier (if living in some place ‘nice’).  Thus we must seperate the actual experience from thoughts about the experience–the ‘meta experience’ you could say.

The problem is that this seems to throw out the fact that different places offer very different ways of life.  I have to wonder if something is lost in his study in the aggregate nature of the data.  Sure, you may not find that the average happiness is significantly different between places, but I think this eliminates the possibility that there are people that would certainly be happier if they traded places.  Iowa may have lots of people that grew up there all their lives and wouldn’t think of leaving–that is the only place they know, and they are happy.  It may also have the angst-ridden artistic teen, stifled by midwestern values and wants the culture and bustle of a major city.  California may have the culturally-adapted surfer stereotypes happy to stay, or the struggling families who would love a quieter, cheaper place to live.  But are they canceling eachother in the study?

While it is easy to be swayed by the glamor of a place, a career choice, a potential spouse, and forget that in the “thick of living” we will lose consciousness about these things, it seems to negate that there are legitimate differences that need to be taken into account.  Is it possible to get beyond these “focusing illusions”, these traps?  Or is the only way to actually test the place and ask ourselves if we are happy more frequently here than somewhere else?

I know this trap has lead me to study things that I respected, but didn’t actually enjoy, like medicine, for instance. I would think, “what a great profession,” rather than asking “am I enjoying this–complex pharmacology and anatomy and rote memorization of drugs?”  Or reading books that I would like to like–old classics, perhaps–thinking while reading them, “wow, I’m reading Dostoyevsky, rather than “do I really like this book?”