When making major purchases, we often make false comparisons or fixate on irrelevant details and distinctions.
Imagine wandering into your local Best Buy to look at new televisions. What information will help you make the best decision?
Well, once you're in the store, there's an entire encyclopedic universe of things to know: Plasma, LCD, or projection? Which aspect ratio should I pick? What resolution do I need? Is the 70-inch screen best, or should I go big-time and get the 126-incher? Is the contrast ratio going to be high enough? The store's incredibly helpful salespeople will patiently answer all of our questions and share all sorts of information.
But this is all proxy information, obscuring a much more important fact that is completely counter to your interests as a consumer. No one in this store is going to help you decide whether to buy a TV.
Instead, we learn about differences that make no difference. The salesperson can tell us about some quantum color adjustment feature that makes the Panasonic TV's picture better than the Sony's picture. We never knew this difference existed, and quite frankly it matters only in a direct side-by-side comparison in the store. And of course once we get our new TV into our living room, any specific visual memory we might have of that difference will fade, replaced by vague self-reinforcing thoughts like, "Oh, yeah, the picture on the Panasonic was way better."
And yet this might very well be the key deciding factor on which TV we choose. Hey, it seemed really important at the time.
Buried in here is the fact that all these seemingly important distinctions displace questions that actually are important: Do I really need a new TV in the first place? Is this TV really going to be that much better than the three TVs I already own? Or most fundamentally of all: Does watching TV at all add any value to my life?
One final point. If you:
1) fancy yourself an expert on the subtleties of large screen TVs,
2) deeply understand the various moisture-wicking properties of Under Armour vs. Nike vs. lululemon sportwear,
3) are conversant in the key distinctions between iPhones, Blackberrys and Droids,
4) have an intimate understanding of whether oak, bamboo, cork or vinyl is a superior flooring material,
5) have mastered the use of the iPad and all of its subtleties,
Then I have question for you:
Are these things that you know actually important?
Nope. Instead, an entire universe of knowledge has been created for you--in order to make you more ignorant.
Next up: Habituation
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