Expediency and Treadmill Effects

Humans are expedient by nature. We're lured to convenient solutions.

Here's an example. I have a friend from another state who doesn't trust her municipal water supply. Something about fluoridation being a communist plot, and... she lost me at that point. Whatever her reason, she wants the very best for her family via a reasonably convenient solution. So, she buys bottled water from Costco.

Expedience is also why it's unlikely her solution would involve unlearning a lifelong tendency to make up conspiracy theories. After all, that would likely be a process involving a lot of learning, personal growth and development of critical thinking skills... and gosh, that could get awfully time-consuming. Instead, there’s an expedient solution just waiting for her--at a modest cost.

That's fine, it's a free country. But if you really want the very best for your family, why stop at just regular bottled water from Costco? Why not a "nicer" brand, like Evian? Or pay even more for bottled water from a specific source--say from some pristine mountain stream in northern Quebec? If you want your family to have the very best, why not seek out the finest water in the world?

Once again, it boils down to expedience. Instead of paying most of your money to get the very! best! water!, the expedient solution is not-quite-so-expensive Costco water. For my friend, her choice simply needed to be just a little bit better than the default choice of standard tap water.

Another example: you decide you want to buy a "nice" car. You select a BMW, which you intend to lease, because with a lease you can get more car for a lower payment. (Yes, I know: long-time CK readers should be groaning at the idiocy of leasing a car. Just indulge me for a minute while I make my point.)

But wait: if you really wanted a nice car, why not buy a Bugatti?

Uh, dude? That's a two million dollar car. That's, uh, just a tad outside my price range.

Fair enough. In other words, you settled for the emotionally and financially expedient solution: the "nicest" car you could afford.

Do you see where this is all going? It means this: as consumers, our tendency towards expediency leads us toward solutions that, collectively, tend to eat up all our financial resources. Expediency has us always reaching just beyond our financial comfort zone to buy things that are just a little bit more expensive than the default choice of those around us.

Most importantly, this is a relativistic phenomenon that happens at every socioeconomic level. Every class has a set of various default choices that everyone at that level wants to beat, if only by just a little. And of course that slightly raises the bar for everyone else, who then go ahead and raise the bar still more. This is the hedonic treadmill of consumption, and it never ends, no matter how high up the economic ladder you climb.

This is the modern sickness of consumerism in a nutshell.

One last thought to tie everything together. Astute readers will notice that the "solution" of purchasing bottled water addresses a symptom, not the central problem. The central problem here is worrying about all the wrong things, not safe drinking water. Likewise, buying the most expensive car you can afford may potentially address your psychological compensatory symptoms, but it only indirectly--and at very high cost--solves the central problem of transport.

Note also that the bottled water industry and the luxury auto industry would prefer you didn't think about this too much.

Interestingly, this suggests that digging down to the level of your emotional needs and carefully considering exactly how those emotional needs are met (or more likely unmet) by a purchase is an extremely robust money-saving strategy. In fact, you can usually satisfy the underlying emotional need in an entirely different way that doesn't involve spending money at all. This is a central pillar of consumer empowerment.

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chacha1 said...

Hi Dan!

I am going to play devil's advocate here for a second. I live in Los Angeles. The municipal water supply is pretty high quality. When you get it out of a *clean, modern plumbing system* that is.

If however you live in one of the thousands of dwellings constructed before 1960, your water will be coming through a hodgepodge of iron, copper, aluminum, and possibly lead. There is a pretty good argument against drinking tap water that tastes like various metals.

In our apartment building, rust is a given. I drink it anyway because to me the taste is not offensive, and I don't drink so much of it that I think it constitutes a health risk.

My husband, however, distills his drinking water.

The water in my office building, on the other hand, is vile. Our firm provides Arrowhead bottled water (in the 5-gal jugs), and that's what I drink during the workday.

I am not going to argue on the fluoridation issue because I'm a fan of fluoridation generally - the health benefits are well-enough documented for me. So if that's a person's only objection to tap water, then they deserve to be mocked. :-)

Daniel said...

Totally fair point that you make Chacha. I guess what matters here is: are these types of decisions made consciously? Or are they merely rationalized, or made with status competition in mind?


chacha1 said...

When I want to look posh, I totally order Pellegrino.

Tragic Sandwich said...

We have water bottles that we refill at the 25-cents-per-gallon machines at the store, because our tap water tastes bad. I'm sure it's healthy. I just don't like the taste.

Jessica Isabel said...

Well from what I understand, this isn't really about the water. It's about how we conceptualize "necessity." For example, I live in Jersey City, and our water's fine -- to my knowledge. Then again, I'm not worrying about water quality. I drink tap water all the time. My roommate feels the need to have a Brita water filter, and that makes her feel healthier. I think it has much less to do with the quality of the water and a lot more to do with how she wants to be perceived -- the quality of person.

Daniel said...

Yes. Thank you Jessica. We were getting a bit sidetracked above by the specific example I used about water, and losing the thread on the overarching theme. You nailed it.