Give Me 3 Minutes and I'll Make you a Better Decision Maker

Do you make completely rational, logical decisions when you purchase items? Do you compare prices and features and make the best decision based on the facts? Are these decisions free of emotion?

I don’t think so. They are entirely emotional and I’ll explain why.

A letter writer to Will Femia’s Clicked blog wrote this in response to my 10 Things I Wish I had Never Believed:

Who buys cars or houses because of the way they make one feel? Well, not me. Especially with the car. For both purchases, I made lists of factors for inclusion and exclusion, and then found the best match for the list. None of the factors was “makes me feel good.”

I used to think the same way as the letter writer. I used to believe I was a very rational decision maker and it led me to make poor decisions. To understand how and why you make the decisions you make, you need to recognize how emotional your decisions really are. Let me give you a couple of personal examples…

In 2001, I wanted a new car. I had $12,500 to spend on the car and I didn’t want to borrow any money. I wanted the best car I could get for the price. I desired these things in a car.

  • Less than $12,500
  • Low Miles – Under 30K
  • Four doors
  • ABS brakes
  • Radio
  • Clean service history
  • Clean accident history
  • Neutral color like silver or gray

I bought a Silver 4-door 2000 Oldsmobile Intrigue with 22,000 miles, ABS brakes, a radio, and a clean history for $12,100.

Was that a rational logical decision?

No it wasn’t. It was purely emotional.

The first decision to challenge is…

Why do I need a car? Driving is a privilege and luxury. Billions of people live without cars. People without cars don’t shrivel up and die. I could live without a car, but I feel better owning one. So why do I want one? Because a car gives me more freedom and that increases my quality of life. And a better quality of life leads to a happier state of consciousness – maybe.

But let’s say I concede that I am a special case and a car is an absolute life necessity. Why do I want these specific features?

Low Miles – I don’t want to worry about the car breaking. I don’t want to spend money on repairs.

Four Door – I want it to be easy to get kids in and out of the back seat.

ABS Brakes – I want to feel safe on the ice and snow.

Radio – I like to listen to music in the car.

Clean history – I don’t want it to break down frequently. I’d feel like a fool buying a totaled car that was refurbished.

Neutral Color – I don’t feel good in flashy colors.

Every one of my required features is emotional. Couldn’t I have gotten by with a hot pink 1990 Ford Escort with 200,000 miles? Sure, why not? I see people driving stuff like that all the time.

Now let’s look at the house I purchased in 2004.

This is what I wanted:

  • 3000+ Square Ft.
  • Less than 10 years old
  • Cul-de-sac location
  • Good school district
  • Nice neighbors
  • Neighbors with kids
  • Large open room for an internet based retail business
  • Access to high speed internet
  • Less than 30 minute commute to work
  • Low crime area
  • Less than 400K

The first question…

Why do I want a new house?

I lived in a 920 Sq ft. house for ten years. It met most of my requirements. I could have lived in my old house for the rest of my life, without a problem. In fact, I could live my life in a much smaller space without a problem. But I wouldn’t have felt as good about it.

We wanted the house because we wanted more room. We didn’t like to feel crowded. I wanted to buy more toys. My wife wanted to expand her business and buy new furnishings that wouldn’t fit in the old house.

My point is we could have stayed in the old house or even moved to an apartment in the slums and saved a lot of money, but we wouldn’t have felt as good.

The features:

3000+ Square Ft. – We didn’t want to feel crowded.

Less than 10 years old – We didn’t want to be bothered with time consuming and costly renovations.

Cul-de-sac location – Wanted to feel safe when the kids played outside.

Good school district Wanted the kids to get a good education.

Nice neighbors – We wanted to enjoy our neighborhood.

Neighbors with kids – We wanted the kids to enjoy their neighborhood.

Large open room for an internet based retail business – We wanted to expand our home based business.

Access to high-speed internet – OK, I would shrivel up and die without internet access. I don’t know how I lived my first 25 years without it.

Less than 30 minute commute to work – I wanted to spend more time with my family instead of on the road.

Low crime area – We wanted to feel safe.

Less than 400K – I didn’t want to worry about debt. My loan officer said I could have borrowed 700K. But I didn’t want the stress of a large mortgage. I felt better putting my money other places.

You can see that every one of my housing requirements is emotional. I think most people would say that these are logical desires. Desires most people have. But they still meet emotional needs.

Many people brag about their bargain hunting ability as a testimony to how rational and logical they are. I have never met a man that was taken to the cleaners by a used car salesman. I always hear the story about how he took the used car lot to the cleaners. Listen to a group of men discuss their big-ticket purchases and you will hear story after story about how they paid less than all the other poor suckers. Your desire to believe you got the best price is purely emotional. It makes you feel smart. With men it’s competitive. The guy that gets the best deal is smarter, tougher, and more masculine. With women it’s a little different. They don’t brag about their negotiating prowess. Don’t kid yourself that your focus on price isn’t emotional. It is. Good marketers and sales people know it. Many people shop at Wal-Mart because they’d feel stupid paying a dollar more for diapers even though they feel like vomiting while they shop there. They value feeling smart more than they value feeling healthy.

An economist once told me that all human decisions are irrational once we have met the basic needs for food, shelter and clothing. Once you have those base needs met, everything else is an emotionally driven desire for status, comfort, and entertainment. After all, we could all wear gray sweat suits, eat beans and powdered milk three times a day, and live in 300 sq ft apartments, but we wouldn’t feel very good about it – would we?

Read the 10 part series on the 10 things I wish I had never believed:

#1 Why People Believe Money is the Root of All Evil
#2 Why Getting a Good Job isn’t the Best Way to Earn Money
#3 The Secret Great Leaders Know About Emotions
#4 Success is 99% Failure
#5 10 Tips to Secure a Management Position without a College Degree
#6 Always Question Your Doctor – Three Stories Why
#7 How the Public School System Crushes Souls
#9 Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Make you a Better Decision Maker

11 thoughts on “Give Me 3 Minutes and I'll Make you a Better Decision Maker”

  1. It IS rational to consider your feelings when making a decision that impacts your quality of life.

    Consider food: if you were to consume only the cheapest, most readily available ingredients which met the absolute nutritional minimum for sustaining life, you would be making a rational decision that would ultimately make you unhappy.

  2. Your article is entitled “Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Make you a Better Decision Maker,” and it is about how you follow a process for buying big-ticket items that entails listing out your requirements for the purchase, and finding an item that meets those requirements. You state that you thought the requirements were purely rational, and explained that after reflecting on them, you concluded that they were all emotional.

    When did you cover the advice that would make me a better decision maker? I don’t mean to be obtuse; I get that you are trying to get me to recognize that emotion enters into my decision-making process to a large extent. Are you saying that that recognition alone will make me a better decision-maker? Should I make decisions based solely on non-emotional criteria? What about decisions where all of the criteria are emotional? What am I missing?


  3. Preston,

    I read this post again a few days after I posted it and realized I hadn’t been clear. You aren’t being obtuse. You are right.

    This is my point:
    If you go through life believing that you make only rational decisions you aren’t being honest with yourself. The sooner you realize that your buying decisions are almost purely emotional, the better you will be able to get what you desire from life and your decision-making will improve.

    Another point I was making isn’t in context today. A writer at Will’s blog on MSNBC said that he never bought a house or a car based on how it made him feel. I replied with this post by saying that not only do you buy the car and the house you bought because of how it made you feel, the only reason you desire a car and a house in the first place is because of how you feel. Billions of people live worldwide without owning a car or a house. I’m not saying it’s irrational to make yourself happy by buying something nice, I’m just asking the reader to recognize the reason they made the purchase… it makes them happy. Maybe it makes you feel smart. Maybe it makes you feel important or cool. Maybe it makes you feel safe. Nevertheless, almost all decisions are emotional. Most people, (especially men) don’t want to accept this, but it is true. Ask any marketing or sales expert, they will tell you the same thing.

    Thanks for your comment

  4. I largely agree with this ethos that a greater input of emotion will better influence the decision made, however i think that reasoning and logic can’t help but play a part in most peoples lives. Many people are happy enough to work for someone feeling the shift of resposibility from themselves leaves them more energy to concentrate on what is more important to their lives, ie:family, hobbies (note plural). Thus they wouldn’t be able to become semi-hedonistic and buy the car that made them feel good, but they’d have to consider how reliable it was and how cheap it’s insurance is; top of the practical list. So how would these sort of people benefit from your mode of thinking?

  5. Mike,
    I am saying that their decision to work for someone else and relinquish the opportunity to buy a luxury car is entirely emotional. It’s the same with the choice for car reliability and insurance… The real question is why do you want a car. Some people have chosen not to buy a car, so I am saying your desire for any car is entirely emotional. If you didn’t own a car could you survive? Yes. Many people do not own a car, some are happy and others are not. So I am saying your desire to be rich is emotional, your desire for an expensive car is emotional, your desire for more time for your hobbies is emotional, your desire for more time with your family is emotional. You spend your life trying to find a place where you feel the best about who you are. That can be different for everybody. Some people couldn’t be happy without a Lexus and McMansion. Others are quite happy with an RV and no address and they have young children. Why don’t you live in an RV with your children? Probably because it would make you feel bad about yourself as a parent.

    So in order to make decisions that make your life better, you need to understand your desires and emotions. I’ve met people that have money and hate themselves. I’ve also met people that have no money and hate themselves. So in order to live life to its fullest, you need to do the things that make you feel good about yourself. Creating value for other people and spending time with my family make me feel good. I’ve lived without a car and I took public transit, and I hated it, so worked hard and bought a car. I feel good about the freedom it gave me. I felt cramped in my old house, so I worked hard and bought a bigger one.

    Get it???? Does this make sense???? In America almost everything we think we need is a luxury, so almost all decisions are emotional.

    The sooner you understand your emotions, the sooner you will find meaning in life.

  6. I disagree with this one. Steve discounts rationality by pointing out that many of the reasons we buy certain things instead of others are emotional (although some of his criteria for a car were, I would say, entirely rational – Not only to ABS brakes make him feel safer, they make him actually safer, which is entirely rational) but he misses the idea that what we really want is to be happy with our purchase, and we can arrive at that happiness by making rational decisions about criteria that matter to us. Yes, at root, we are emotional, but we use rationality to reach emotional satisfaction. There isn’t a problem with this; it’s a sensible way of doing things.

  7. Kind of a silly article.
    I mean the thing about buying things you don’t need because of your emotions is good, but buying something because it fits your emotional needs IS rational

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