Perceiving Is Believing

There was an excellent column by David Brooks in today’s New York Times; he argued that the financial meltdown may prompt a “behavioral revolution” that, having finally acknowledged the fallibility of our collective risk assessment, will shift focus among economists from the determination of self-interest to the mechanism of perception during the economic decision-making process.

Some extended quoting from Brooks will be appropriate to the reflection that will follow:

Perceiving a situation seems, at first glimpse, like a remarkably simple operation.  You just look and see what’s around.  But the operation that seems most simple is actually the most complex, it’s just that most of the action takes place below the level of awareness.  Looking at and perceiving the world is an active process of meaning-making that shapes and biases the rest of the decision-making chain.

My sense is that this financial crisis is going to amount to a coming-out party for behavioral economists and others who are bringing sophisticated psychology to the realm of public policy. … Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been deeply influenced by this stream of research. … Taleb believes that our brains evolved to suit a world much simpler than the one we now face.  His writing is idiosyncratic, but he does touch on many of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking:  our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck.

The Brooks column hit close to home as I reflect on the decision-making process now underway with a friend of mine.  He’s considering moving in with his significant other, after having been together for only about a month.

Understand that I’ve never met my friend’s S.O., so I have no basis by which to judge that person’s character or disposition.  That said, I am aware that this person is in early middle age, is of average appearance, and has had a fairly limited dating history.  I’ve also been made privy to information about the relationship that suggests that the S.O. is still eager to make a good impression on my friend and may be behaving in the “attraction” stage instead of the “building” phase of the relationship.

There are several considerations in play, but the most significant is whether the relationship is at a stage where cohabitation is natural and not inappropriate.

All relationships proceed in phases.  We begin at the attraction stage; our goal is to find, and to keep, a potential mate, and we engage in behaviors designed to maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses in the mind of the other.  The next is the discovery stage; we learn more about our potential partner to determine the most appropriate trajectory and outcome for the relationship, and we build a more in-depth understanding of that person’s essential character.  The third stage is comfort-building; once on solid ground and there’s mutual assent to proceed in a long-term fashion, there is an absolute need to spend time together — especially mundane time — to ensure that various personality quirks that might be considered charming early on, don’t become a source of earth-shattering annoyance later (e.g., snoring, or one’s sense of humor).  After a suitable amount of comfort is built, and trust becomes rock-solid, a couple can move into genuine and abiding love that is strong enough to weather most storms.  This “love stage” takes a long time to grow — sometimes a year or more.

I believe, as a matter of my own personal bias, that it’s imprudent to consider cohabitation until well into the comfort-building stage.  Until a couple has spent many months of quality time together, but living separately, there’s really no clear indication that cohabitation will be a successful endeavor. 

Part of the “should I move in” question cannot be answered without  a clear understanding of whether both halves of the relationship are at the same emotional stage.  My concern with my friend’s situation is that he — by temperament, and by experience — is ready to move ahead at warp speed (despite knowing the dangers of pressing too hard, too fast).  It’s not at all clear to me, however, that his S.O. is in the same boat.  I question whether my friend’s romantic interest — in this case, from a lack of experience — sees my friend as the person he is, or as a role.

Consider Jack and Jill.  Perhaps Jill is a bit worldly; she’s been around the block a time or two and knows which streets are which.  She meets Jack, and they hit it off.  Jack, however, doesn’t get out much, and he may not be the top prize at the bar (conceding, of course, that different people have different tastes).  Worse, Jack is more open than most to be in a relationship of some sort, with almost anyone who’s willing to reciprocate.  When he meets Jill, he falls for her, and they move very quickly into a formal relationship that’s marked by an intense degree of sexual intimacy.  The question is this:  Are Jack and Jill at the same stage of their relationship?

Part of me wonders whether Jack, because of his inexperience, sees Jill less as a unique person, but more as a role — in this case, a hot body to touch and to call his own, but who at this point is fungible.  That is, Jill could be replaced by a different personality, and Jack’s reaction to the situation would be similar.  On the deepest and most fundamental level, Jack isn’t seeing Jill for who she is, he’s seeing her as an object of desire and attraction — as the “hot girlfriend who pays attention to me and lets me bang her for hours on end” instead of as “Jill.”

We all go through this phase with each new prospective mate, but it hits harder and lasts longer for those with insubstantial relationship histories, because they are so eager to be “with someone” that they look first to the role that the other plays in their lives before they are prepared to see that other person for who he or she really is.  This phenomenon is natural, healthy, and (because it typically doesn’t last too long) not at all inappropriate.  It’s also a phase that’s utterly transparent to the person experiencing it — that is, a person going through it is probably highly skilled at saying things that imply an interest in the other as a person, but without in-depth knowledge, the attraction is really for the role that the other play’s in his life and not for the person as he or she may be.  Behavioral assessment, not conversation, is the best arbiter.

Before Jack and Jill can reasonably discuss cohabitation, they both need to be at the same relationship stage.  For a number of reasons, most of them a function of experience, Jack really isn’t equipped to appropriately diagnose his present stage, so Jill has to do the heavy lifting — to be the responsible adult.  Jill needs to decide whether she wants the short-term gratification (from the move-in, from the initial intimacy, from perhaps escaping from an unpleasant current living environment) even if it might compromise the long-term stability of the relationship.  After all, what’s worse than two people who are, for all practical purposes, strangers, trapped in the same living quarters if the relationship sours?

Getting to know someone doesn’t happen overnight.  It doesn’t happen in a month.  There have been some people I have met with whom I might have eagerly pursued a relationship at first, but it wasn’t until many months later — four, five, six months minimum — that I came to realize that a committed romantic entanglement would have been an unmitigated nightmare.  Time brings a perspective that can be obscured by the initial rush of hormones and emotions.

This is why the Brooks column intrigued me.  The very same perceptual biases that affected a major system like the market also influence individual decisions.  When I think about my friend, and I review in my mind his likely justifications for why moving in with his S.O. makes sense, I can’t help but to think that he’s “overvaluing recent events when anticipating future possibilities” — that is, believing the present joy he experiences will continue in the future, and can survive the inevitable bumps that come along as two people develop a deeper understanding of each other.  I think he will “see data that confirms his prejudices more vividly than data that contradicts them” — especially when he sets aside his own relationship history and its painful lessons over the last few years.  I can hear him “spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative” when he explains why his current housing situation sucks and how much better it would be to cohabit.

My friend knows I wish him nothing but the best of happiness and success.  Heck, I’ve put my money where my mouth is on this, helping him along in various ways as best as I can.  He knows that seeing him happy makes me happy, and that I take no joy in being the crotchety old man in the corner raising objections to an action which he believes is about to increase his happiness.

But I have a bad feeling about this cohabitation issue.  I’m not at all convinced that he and his romantic interest are at the same relationship stage, which means that there’s not an authentic meeting of the minds in terms of decision-making.  I’m worried that my friend still has many things of significance to disclose to his S.O. that might affect the nature of the relationship.  I’m not sure that the couple have enough of a sense of each other’s personalities that they won’t find a major thorn will develop in time that might sap the strength of the relationship — because even things that we might be OK with in small doses, or at first, can become a focal point for disaffection later.  I’m nervous that if the relationship should sour, that neither party may be able (financially or emotionally) to definitively break things off and separate, thus raising the possible repeat of a situation that my friend once endured for four long years.  I’m sad that my friend may not respect his S.O. enough to insist on a proper period of courtship and comfort-building before continuing the escalation process, which itself is a big red flag in terms of using another as a role instead of loving them as unique and feeling person.

In short, I really, really, really, really, really wish my friend would be the mature adult I know him to be, and delay cohabitation until at least after the new year.  For that matter, I wish he’d spend fewer nights as it is in his S.O.’s bed.  In relationships, speed = death, and it’d crush me almost as much as it’d crush him to see this relationship — in which he’s invested so much already — get derailed because too much was assumed too quickly.

Give it time.  It’s worth it.  You’re worth it.

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