I’m writing this as I wait for the air conditioning repair tech to call me back. He’s supposed to be here by now. I called the company office about half an hour ago to make sure he was still coming, and they said he would call when he’s on his way. I know that technicians get held up when they’re on call, but it’s late afternoon and if he can’t make it today, I don’t know when I’ll be able to reschedule. I’m about to start a new position at the university, a 9-to-5 office job, so today might be my only weekday off for a while. Luckily, it’s rainy today, and cool. So it’s comfortable in my house for now. But it’s only going to get hotter, and my air conditioning unit just runs, impotently, like a mouse on one of those wheels, endlessly turning but accomplishing nothing.
I don’t know anything about air conditioning, but I expect I’ll learn. Much the same way that I’ve learned about plumbing, wiring, and landscaping in the last 9 months or so that I’ve been a homeowner—by having it explained to me by a very capable and polite tradesperson as they repair it. Each time something goes wrong, I ask my veteran homeowner friends if there’s a repair person who they can recommend. They always offer suggestions, but with a tone of resignation that indicates they’ve been here too. Disappointed, financially stressed, unprepared, and even sort of victimized.
The thing that gets me is, all these same people were so enthusiastic about my decision to buy a home a year ago. They went on and on about how good of an investment it is and how I’ve been “throwing money away on rent all these years” and “it’s the grown-up thing to do”. Now that the damage is done, they smile wistfully when I complain that everything that can’t be detected in a pre-closing inspection has gone wrong since I’ve bought my house. “Yup”, they say, “get used to that”.
Where was their resignation before I saddled myself with a mortgage? Where was their jaded sincerity? My homeowner friends were all middle-class pride and upward mobility when I was in the market for a house, but now they scoff at my naivete when I complain that I no longer have any savings because every extra dollar goes into fixing my house. I feel like an inductee into some vaguely secretive and mildly abusive club. One that spends a lot of time bragging about the benefits of membership to outsiders, but conveniently neglects to mention the disadvantages.
I had friends in college who joined fraternities, and during their sort of probationary “pledging” period, they were made to carry awkward objects around campus, or recite obscure facts about the university at the command of the senior members. I never joined any such organization myself, but I imagine this hazing ritual is intended to inspire loyalty and demonstrate commitment. My experience as a homeowner feels a little bit like that. It’s not that other homeowners are intentionally abusing or embarrassing me. But they knew I would be abused and embarrassed, and yet they encouraged me to join their club.
It occurs to me that this behavior applies to a wider range of groups. Parents often encourage non-parents to have children. Religious folks often recommend spirituality to the non-religious. Even fans of a particular tv show will push their friends to watch the show too. It seems like people always think that their choices are the best ones, and that others would be better off if they agreed. This, of course, is no surprise. How could anyone get through life thinking that all their decisions were poor ones and they would have been better off doing otherwise. Perhaps there are people like this, but they would be miserable friends, and so I suspect not many of us are receiving advice from people like that.
I think there is a range of interpretations of this behavior. The most cynical is that misery loves company—that people who regret their decisions are resentful of those who chose more wisely and strive to bring cosmic justice into balance by luring the lucky or clever into ruin. Perhaps, again, there are some people like this, but it seems pretty unlikely that there are very many.
Slightly less cynical is the possibility that people want to feel justified in their decisions, regardless of whether they are actually good ones, and so they put the most positive spin on their choice to buy a house, have children, get married, etc., which has the dual effect of both convincing themselves that their decision was justified in retrospect, and possibly convincing others to join them, further validating the decision.
A sort of value-neutral psychological explanation is that people simply don’t think about the bad parts of their experience when they make recommendations. They don’t have any real agenda when they tell you that their lives have improved since they started watching Game of Thrones or became gluten-free. They really believe, at least in that moment, that their lives have improved, and their recommendation is more of a description of the benefits they have actually enjoyed. They simply are forgetting about the costs. I think psychologists call this confirmation bias. Or maybe I’m thinking of a different thing, but I’m confident there is a name for it.
To be more optimistic, one more possibility is that people really do, on the whole, assess their lives as better in the light of the change they recommend. They judge themselves to be sincerely happier and they want you to be happier too. They reflect on the quality of their lives before and since their decision, they evaluate the impact of the change, and they believe that it has caused a net improvement. Of course, they may be mistaken in their conclusion that there is a causal link between their decision and their happiness (I’m referring to the work of Dan Gilbert here), but their motivations are benevolent.
While I lean toward the cynical in my explanations of human behavior in most cases, I suspect that my enthusiastic homeowner friends were not actually using me to justify their own bad choices or mollify their regrets. Probably they were reflecting on their current lives in a positive light, and perhaps mistaking correlation for causation.
In any case, I don’t know if they really meant to initiate me into the exclusive club of homeownership through ritual hazing. But I have learned, since I started writing this a couple weeks ago, that there is nothing wrong with my air conditioning that is detectable by any tests that a professional technician is likely to perform. So now I just seem delusional. To this technician, like a bourgeois academic, mystified by the workings of the machinery that makes my comfortable life possible. And to you, like neurotic blogger spouting cautionary tales as though they are profound. Both you and he are probably right.