Posted by: Nicholas Davis | May 12, 2009

Tough decisions part 2: buying a car

Another day, another lesson for Nick in practical decision-making. This time another crucial, heart-wrenching and hedonically-treacherous example – purchasing a motor vehicle.

Having given back the “borrowed” Audi A2 after a year of mishap (don’t ask), we’ve been “à pied” for the winter, relying on the train system, friendly drivers and the local SIXT office for transport out of Geneva in all directions. And while this has worked remarkably well, we’ve been itching for the freedom to head to Chamonix or Leysin or even newer and more exciting places without having to plan around public transport or the kindness of friends. With rock-climbing season in full swing and a number of social engagements in the south of France looming, it seemed the perfect time to invest in some form of automobile.

I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that the A2 experience left me wanting some form of guarantee on car mechanics, and she who must be obeyed desired something that felt safe with 4 doors that could fit a lot of gear. This ruled out minis, old porsches (à la Hank Moody) and all of the millions of second-hand Audi TTs offered on the local radio classifieds. After further eliminating all Italian and French cars (the advice of a taxi driver) and assessing the peculiar Geneva market, we were essentially left with three brands – Toyota, VW and Subaru. Given I couldn’t compete with David’s WRX, that left two.

So, with well-priced Golfs in seeming short-supply (ironically, without a car it proved almost impossible to see those that were around), she and I went test-driving Toyotas. We found some good examples, but nothing that met all our needs. The Aurises felt a bit light and tinny and had a strange separator-thingy between driver and passenger, despite being great value. The second-hand diesel Yaris we discovered at La Capite was perfect except for the colour – until the gentleman selling us described how his doctor-wife refused to drive it because she’d seen one smashed into a cube on a highway. Having spent a month narrowing down the options, the two of us started weighing the trade-offs on what was left, with the essential factor being value-for-money. By Sunday night no real conclusions had been reached, except that I should see the one Golf we’d come across at a nearby garage before giving the yay or nay to the good doctor’s husband on the Yaris.

I was therefore surprised today to discover, less than half an hour after sighting the Golf in question, that I was indeed shaking hands with the dealer, even though I knew that I was paying slightly over the mark for a four-year old GTI. What had happened?

I can’t credit the dealer – he really didn’t have to do any selling. The closest I can come to an honest ex-post rationalization of my decision to swipe my credit card there and then was the fact that it just “felt right”. And at that point the discussions about trade-offs between size and features and price and age in the other cars just didn’t matter. While mentally I knew most of the boxes were ticked (size, km, colour, safety),  this was eclipsed by the feeling I had as I steered the car out of the garage. It just fit. I wanted to keep driving the car. And though I thought I acted pretty cool when I brought it back and clumsily talked a grand off the price, it definitely wasn’t hard bargaining in any sense (I should have demanded they fix the mag wheels). To sum up, therefore, “feeling” totally trumped my “rational” model of measuring up cars against one another; further, when it came down to it, the key determinant, price, was far less important than I had anticipated. The dealer couldn’t believe his luck, I’m sure.

And why did feeling win out? Not because this was a polished, new-smelling car (actually it had just come in from the previous owner, had a fair few scrapes in and out and was muddy in spots – most of the bargaining involved polish). Not because I’d seen advertisements or had talked and thought about it for weeks in advance – I’d been spending that energy on convincing myself that the Yaris was the best option. No, I think it was because when I was 19 I owned a deep-purple, souped-up Honda Civic VTI-R which was my pride and joy. And the feeling of the Golf’s turbo kicking in as I turned off Quai Gustav Ador and accellerated up the ramp to Cologny reminded me ultimately of the freedom of pulling away from the traffic at lights at 10.30am on a weekday and heading towards the mountains. And it doesn’t take much to sell a 200bhp hatchback to a teenager. I had moved from dispassionately buying a means to an end (travel) to find an end that I’d forgotten about (driving). A costly discovery, I’m sure, but one which I’m currently still happy about. My future self will kick me for high insurance premiums, but my present self can’t wait to take the car up the Saleve.

Lessons? First, emotions are important, and you can’t just discount them with models. On the upside, they make the journey as enjoyable as the end: in a similar way I love my skis, and that makes me a better skier and amplifies my pleasure, since I use them more often and am prepared to do more with them. On the downside of course, this is why advertisers invoke emotions – it’s just lucky for VW that I was primed a long time ago. The trick is not to let emotions steer you into decisions with big downsides. And here I’m fairly ok – given the availability of insurance, my loss is only the price by which I overpaid, which can’t be more than a grand or two in any event.

Second, I think this is an example of how emotions are influenced (at least in part) by two related psychological phenomena: sense of identity and memories of key experiences in our past. The first is clear – we are drawn to objects that reinforce our sense of self. The second links to theories by Harville Hendrix, the great sage of insightful (if un-falsifiable, as Darko pointed out tonight) relationship psychotherapy: he arguesthat we’re all looking to characteristics that nurtured us in the past. I found both identity and familiarity in the Golf.

Third (there has to be a third), while price is important, value is something different entirely. The market set the price, and the cues it gives are entirely transparent as to what that price is. But some curious neural patterns instinctively told me today that the value was higher than the price, which drove my behaviour. And I most definitely don’t want to lose sight of this distinction by creating justifications for how this “rationally” occurred (via preferences that deviated from the market average, for example). I was decidedly irrational today on most measures; but if that means (as I hope) that I end up with a mode of vehicular transport that I get a kick out of on a weekly basis, yay for irrationality in decision-making.

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