Mr. Spock is a character from the Star Trek franchise who is an alien. His world’s culture is based upon eliminating emotions and making all decisions through pure logic. The older I get the more I see that emotional decision making is generally bad. Logical decision making is typically good. Unfortunately like the way the Spock character is written, trying to be purely logical is nearly impossible to pull off and often leads to challenges. I’ve recently witnessed this with a buddy who, at the time of this writing, is about to buy a house. He currently lives in a crappy single wide trailer that’s falling apart. He was looking to upgrade and move into the trailer next door which was a double-wide. He was pouring money into it to make it seem more like a reasonable modern home and less like a 30-year-old double-wide. Then all of a sudden, after spending a good chunk of money refreshing the double-wide, he switched gears and decided to buy a nice house near Raleigh. When I say nice, I mean the home cost over five times his household income. Any financial advisor will tell you that’s a bad idea.
Now my buddy makes a good living, well above the median household income in America, so you may wonder why he was pouring money into crappy old trailers in the first place if he intended to move. The answer was that this was family land and the trailers were free to live in so moving wasn’t in the cards initially. This is not especially rare in North Carolina where family compounds are common. I can only assume they’re holdovers from the days of the family farms. Somebody, usually an elderly patriarch or matriarch, holds tons of land and they start cutting it up and giving pieces to the next generation who builds their houses. This keeps the family close and also has the added benefit of providing a trusted support structure for everybody. In fact this was the case with my buddy. There are three houses on the property. A single wide, a double-wide, and a nice little old brick house. The grandparents who lived in the brick house passed on, and so everybody moved up in house.
My buddy, a single parent, had moved onto the property for the traditional rationale of plugging into the support system of family members on property. As his child moved into the age of defiance, my buddy quickly learned that his support structure did not extend into the very hard work of micro-managing an increasingly mischievous preteen. The child became adept at getting what he wanted simply by going to the home of his grandparent. He decided that getting into a neighborhood with lots of middle class to upper middle class families would give his kid more exposure to positive role modeling all the while having many more responsible eyes keeping a lookout. His logic is not flawed. The challenge is the cost. When 40% of your take-home pay goes to the mortgage there’s little else for other things in your life.
Since his biggest complaint was responsible and disciplined child care, my argument was that a part-time nanny cost a lot less than a $2,000 a month mortgage. There’s more flexibility with this strategy, because if something happens to him financially, he simply goes back to the status quo of lax childcare from the grandparent. Additionally, as much of a problem as the child is today, It’s only a few short years until the child’s pretty independent. A mortgage is a massive multi-decade commitment with tons of risk built in.
I also think his timing is horrible. At the time he was purchasing, historically low interest rates were driving historically high demand and the result was massively inflated pricing. A seller’s market is never a good time to buy a home. So why make this commitment? It really boiled down to the family script. When there are disagreements within a family, typically there are patterns of conversations and interactions that are not healthy but get repeated regularly. Over time this becomes a huge never-ending emotional burden for everybody involved. My buddy just wanted to be over and done with it. Sadly his reaction was the aforementioned 30-year mortgage for a home well in excess of what he could logically afford.
The neighborhood chosen was a good one. The idea to buy a house in a high demand neighborhood is a good one. Taking advantage of historically low interest rates is also a good move. If he was in a stable dual income relationship, had a huge chunk of cash to put down in addition to a long-term guaranteed high-income I would say go for it. His income is good for the next few years, but maybe not forever. It’s not like he has a credential that guarantees him high wages for the rest of his life. He just landed in a good career place for now.
There’s other stuff going on of course. My buddy hates the idea that he lives in a trailer even though it’s free. There’s some other little bits and pieces to the story, as you would expect, that don’t reinforce the idea of moving to the expensive neighborhood. The bottom line, at least to me, is that this is a case of challenged parenting which has developed into an acute case of house fever.
In my mind the answer is simple. Get a qualified part-time babysitter/nanny for under a grand a month instead. They would be able to help the kid with school work as well as keep the child busy and out of trouble. In effect it’s a part-time rent-a-mom. I would sock the rest of the money away because rainy days always happen and everybody needs a really fat rainy day fund. If you try that for six months and it still doesn’t work, then you could do something more drastic. There’s always a lender willing to sign people with good credit up for 30 years worth of payments.
The point of this story is the point of this article. Emotional decision making can get you in big trouble and have ramifications that last a very long time. There are of course tons of examples all around us. If you’ve been around a minute you’ve heard a story about some kid who dropped out of school because “School just wasn’t for them.” To me that’s really code for “I just don’t want to work at something that is a little uncomfortable even if the long term benefits are obvious.”
Another quintessential example is in interpersonal relationships. Specifically I’m thinking about significant others. Who hasn’t known a female with either a compulsively lazy or abusive boyfriend/husband that they stick with because when questioned about it, they respond “I love him.” I’m sure I will get hate mail for specifically calling out females, but being truthful, in my life experience 99% of the people who are in this situation are females. It turns out my life experience mirrors the research. There are some guys who are emotionally connected to a caustic partner but they are few and far between. Regardless, It doesn’t matter if it’s a male or a female who has the abusive or leech of a significant other, it’s the completely illogical emotional dependency that keeps them in the relationship.
Whenever I see that type of situation I always think back to the statistics on arranged marriages. For anyone who doesn’t know, arranged marriages where they are still practiced, have a much lower divorce rate then the rate we have here in a culture where marriage is based on emotions. This makes sense because older, more experienced minds are making the decision. They look at all of the variables of the relationship inclusive of personality types and resources and try to make a great match.
Logic and Discipline: The Marriage WE Have to Arrange
Over and over again in life we experience emotions. They are especially strong when we are younger as learning to control them takes time, practice and quite a few failures. Failure is always the best teacher when it comes to behavior modification. I have two young female friends and one young male friend. All of which have just purchased very expensive cars with years of payments. They did it mostly based on emotional wants, not acute transportation needs.
I tend to be less judgmental on these types of decisions. The reason is, in all cases, these were their first new cars. It’s hard to be critical of someone who’s just doing what everybody else around them does and what feels right. They don’t have any life experience that tells them car payments are a bad idea If they can live without the car payment. Five to seven years or more of car payments and higher than average insurance premiums has a tendency to drive home a lesson about the logic of needing a new vehicle if you have a perfectly reliable ones sitting in the driveway. Still, in at least one of the three cases, the person who made the purchase knew it was a bad idea.
I’ve seen this in interpersonal relationships. Often, again with females more than males, I see people getting involved in relationships with a very flawed individual. They know it’s a bad idea yet they still proceed and almost always the results are what anybody from the outside would logically expect. The person in the relationship with the recovering drug addict has to deal with relapses. The person who gets involved with a significant other who has children winds up having never ending arguments about the parenting of those children. This, I think, is the thing that troubles me the most. If you have the life experience to know something is a bad idea, then why do it? Where is the discipline to say no?
I know that emotions are very challenging things. They’re driven by thoughts which activate biochemical reactions in our brain that insights behavioral responses. In theory it all goes back to the survival instinct. There are generations of study and research on this topic. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. I do think, for this article at least, it’s reasonable to ask the question of what can we do to be more logical and less emotional?
It can’t happen on a macro level, all it takes is five minutes watching the news to prove that as a mass population the lizard brain still rules us. We have a massive public educational infrastructure that’s designed to teach people how to logically reason. Yet the political discourse directed towards and among the masses is driven by messages that are purely emotional. This ultimately leads to riots and all sorts of other civic chaos which limits societal progress.
Individuals have the ability to be different from the hive mine if they choose. As I mentioned earlier, the growth of logic and reasoning in our decision making happens organically through time. The more experiences you have in life, the more refined your decision making tends to be. The next question should be, if it happens through time, can we speed it up? Well, as I just said, not on a macro level. If the school systems were successful we wouldn’t have riots in the streets nor divisive political discord. Individually, I’d like to believe it’s possible. I think the key is humility, the understanding that you may be wrong about what you currently believe to be true. If you can get to the point of questioning your own beliefs and feelings, then I think you can open the door for more dispassionate logical reasoning. It still takes decades to achieve this level of self-awareness.
This doesn’t stop the people who are compelled to make bad decisions even though they know they are bad and can easily and clearly explain the negative outcomes they will most likely encounter as they move forward on the ill-fated path. I think they should be saluted for their self-awareness. At least they can further explore why they continue to make bad decisions. I don’t believe any amount of therapy would help these personality types although i’m sure some mental health professionals would strongly disagree. I think these individuals do help others insomuch as those who are close to them can experience the poor decision making first hand. This becomes a form of experiential learning that accelerates the development of logical decision making for those who don’t have emotional roadblocks. Going back to early childhood, younger siblings see the older children in the family make mistakes, get in trouble, and often choose not to repeat those mistakes. It’s their first exposure to learning truly important lessons through observation.
I think this is also why I prefer to be close to flawed individuals, why I find them so interesting. If you are the type of person who is active in your church, in a very stable marriage, has 2 – 3 normal kids, a regular job and no other real passions than the football game of the week, I find that boring. Mostly because there is nothing to learn. I’m hugely flawed in many different aspects of my own personality and constantly trying to better understand how to mitigate my challenged natural tendencies. I’m sure my long running blog and podcast about the collision points in work and life could be an indicator of this.
I think this is the key to everything i’m trying to convey here. Emotional decision making gets us into trouble, but it is who we are. Logical decision making is not natural. It’s hard work to come to the conclusion that something may not be what we want, but it is the right thing to do. It’s even harder to do the thing we understand logically is better for us. It’s simply much easier to be emotional and do the thing that feels good. On the positive side, if we are able to conquer our emotions, there are definitely some benefits. Going back to the Star Trek reference, living a life filled with logical decision making and actions will help us live longer and prosper more.