In grade school, you went through a period in English class where you were taught to “compare and contrast” different things. That technique is an excellent one for learning and we were unconsciously taught that you can never compare and contrast enough. It was a marker of intelligence.
But unlimited comparison is not an effective strategy for making decisions.
Unlimited comparison is excellent for learning, because you are using the ‘which of these is not like the other’ mentality to identify the characteristics of a new thing.
But for actually making purchase decisions, it leaves you with a slew of falsely important-sounding details.
We need to apply a filter to what we’ve learned of which details actually matter, and then discard the rest.
Let me give you an example.
Overblown Details Exploding Your Budget
This weekend, I was deciding between two insanely expensive Vitamix blenders. If you know anything about Vitamix, you don’t need me to explain anything more. People swear by their Vitamix blenders and use them for years. These things, as one reviewer put it, can do everything but fly.
So there I was, agonizing for an hour over two different models.
- One was $316. One was $296. Both were refurbished, by the way, not new.
- One had a 2.2 Hz motor, one had a 2.0 Hz motor. This basically meant one would chop your stuff into a fine oblivion in 1 second and the other would chop it into a fine oblivion in 1.2 seconds.
- One had a pulse button in place of the old Hi-Low button. What does that mean? After 15 minutes of frantic searching, I can tell you that the results are inconclusive.
- One had a lower container profile than the other, making for easier cabinet storage.
Can you guess which one I bought?
The answer is neither.
The suggestion came from a friend who is a running maniac and uses their her twice a day. For her, there was a real difference in smoothie texture. There was also a need for insane amounts of power to make the healthy weird soups she makes for dinner.
I just wanted something that made smoothies. As it turns out, that can be had for $30 on Amazon.
Comparison in learning mode gave me the above four bullets, but when I applied a decision making filter on it, the bullets looked like this:
- $316 vs $296 Wtf?
- 2.2 vs 2.0 Hz Motor Irrelevant
- Pulse vs Hi-Low Button Irrelevant
- Lower Container Profile vs Standard Irrelevant
Whew. This was a near miss for me. I actually went so far as to put in the order, and spent the next five minutes clicking the cancel button frantically.
You have to impose your own strong opinions of what matters and what doesn’t.
Otherwise, you will be swept along on the consumer tide. You need to categorize information as being both interesting and significant: something can be news to you and interesting but still be insignificant.
I had been letting my brain in comparison mode lead me to a decision, and I needed to use my brain in decision making mode.
Because many of us are also educating ourselves before making a decision, we need to impose a clear transition between that learning mode and decision mode.
You can rely on others to share information with you in the learning phase, but you must not rely on them for an opinion on which of those details matter. You must come to that conclusion yourself.
Details Done Right
Here’s an example where I did have a real opinion and used it appropriately.
I’m a big believer in capturing memories with photos.
One of the wisest things I came across in my research on cameras is that the best camera for you is the one you have on you. When I compared these words to my own experiences these past three years, I realized it couldn’t be more true; almost all the photos I had of my friends and family really came from my camera’s phone.
Prior to this realization, I would have prioritized quality of pictures over anything else: I can tell you a lot about saturation, resolution, and macro modes. But given my realization above, I made ‘must be part of a phone’ my absolute, uncompromisable requirement and then asked for a minimum level of quality on the photos.
Any other features were categorized as interesting but irrelevant.
My phone contract was up this year and I had to get a new phone. So, I researched Top 5 camera phone lists and was able with a little savings ninja research to purchase a brand new cameraphone featured in many Top 5 reviews for $200. Here is a picture from that bad boy.
This was taken the day after I retired.
If that isn’t meaning and value tied up in a good decision, I don’t know what is. I sure as heck wouldn’t have thought to bring a separate, top of the line mega-awesome camera with me on my spontaneous walk.
While each of us will have areas we feel strongly about and for which we will notice the smaller details, for most things we would be happy with just basic function. Here is a list of common areas where artificial details convince people to overspend.
- 2x Powerful Lawn Mower: Are you a professional lawn mower? No? Normal is good enough for you.
- V8-V12 Engine Fancy Car: Are you a Nascar racer? Does the fancy high-end logo of BMW or Mercedes keep you safer in a car crash or fit more of your kids in the backseat? Normal is good for you.
- Private vs Group Lessons: Are you an advanced student with years of experience? Is what you’re learning extremely individual in nature? If not, go with more group time for the equivalent price because practice and exposure are the two most important things for your improvement.
- House/Vacation Rental With a View: Are you going to be staring out the window every day? Do you have a history of being moved by the environs outside your window?
- Top of the Line Shower/Jacuzzi/Hot Tub: Are you planning to spray yourself at full blast every day? Are you covered in dirt that requires the highest of pressure and the hottest of waters compared to normal?
How Do You Tell What Matters?
I realize that trying to decide if something is relevant can be really hard, so I’ve created a rule of thumb for myself.
If you can point to specific past experiences where the extra feature would have meaningfully improved your happiness, then it may be a relevant detail.
If you can really envision yourself leveraging all the torque of your V12 engine to go from zero to 60 seconds on a regular basis and point to specific examples (XYZ time on I-80, that pesky Crestview Hill), and you saw evidence of your enjoyment in your last torque upgrade, then by all means consider ponying up the cash to have this feature.
But don’t be that guy driving a beast of a sports car, engine purring as he uses that bad boy to cruise 20 mph to his kid’s school. I’ve seen that guy, and I feel bad for his bank account.