Big Cars, Suburbia and the Strawberry Jam Error

By Bill Moore

Posted: 22 Aug 2012

Did you know it's possible to think too much about something and end up making a bad decision? It's called the strawberry jam error based on a series of university student experiments rating strawberry jam.

Intrigued by a Consumer Reports rating on some 40+ brands of strawberry jams, Timothy Wilson, a psychologist as the University of Virginia asked his students to perform a similar evaluation, but he divided them into two groups. The one group simply tasted each jam and scored it. The second group were asked to explain their choices, forcing them to think about why they rated them the way they did.

In the case of the first group of students, their results mirrored those of the Consumer Reports tasters: both rated Knott's Berry Farm's jam the best. The worst were Acme and Sorrel Ridge. But in the case of the students asked to explain their choices, the results were completely different. They rated Sorrel Ridge the best. As Jonah Lehrer observes in 'How We Decide,'

"This experiment illuminates the danger of always relying on the rational brain. There is such a thing as too much analysis… You lose the ability to know what you really want. And then you choose the worst strawberry jam."

The problem of the 'strawberry jam error' isn't limited to which jams you buy. It also impacts much bigger decisions in life, ones with far more economic and environmental consequences.

"People can also think too much about more important choices, like buying a house," Lehrer notes. He cites the work of a Dutch psychologist who studied how and why Netherlanders chose the homes they did. He found that when potential buyers consider, for example, two property options: a three-bedroom apartment in the middle of the city with a ten-minute commute, or a five-bedroom home in suburbia with a 45-minute commute, one way, the buyers are prone to making what he calls a "weighing mistake."

"What's interesting," the Dutch psychologist explains, "is the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that turns the suburban house into a necessity. The lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when it's compared to the lure of an extra bathroom."

Of course, this reasoning is backwards, because all that extra room might be used a couple days out of the year, while that two hour commute becomes an increasingly frustrating burden that gets more tiresome -- and expensive -- with each passing day.

And this isn't just a problem for the Dutch, Lehrer notes, pointing out that 20 percent of Americans commute more than 45 minutes each way, and that 3.5 million Americans spend more than three hours each day traveling to and from work. They also happen to be the fastest-growing category of commuter, he writes.

And besides sprawling suburban McMansions, Americans -- and other nationalities -- make the same "strawberry jam error" when it comes to the vehicles we buy: justifying big models in cars and trucks for those few occasions when we might need that extra space or towing capacity, while the rest of the year they're just big, fuel-hungry, road-hogging burdens for us individually and the community collectively.

Which brings me to an interesting trend taking place in Portland, Oregon, considered the "most European" of American cities. There is an apartment building boom going on there and two-thirds of them offer no motor vehicle parking. Why? For very practical economic reasons. Providing for car parking turns a $750/month apartment into a $1,200 unit. Renters either don't own cars -- Portland is the pioneer city for carsharing, bicycling and the national model for great urban mass transit with the Max and trolley system -- or if they do, they'll have to park them in the street, which of course, isn't going to sit well with neighbors.

Why is the city letting developers do this? Tim Heron, Portland's city planner explains, "“Portland wants to grow up in terms of its density – and parking cars, meaning making the space and creating the space for them to park on a site can eat up a lot of space. So we’ve seen an increase in developers wanting to exercise a no-parking option, and use that space for units or for retail.”

Irvington Garden, a 50-unit project without parking, filled up 'within weeks' of opening, and the majority of renters don't own cars.

So, you can continue to make that 45-minute commute out to suburbia, or you can settle for a living arrangement and lifestyle that gives you back your life in terms of your time and very possibly, your health. Just don't think too hard about it.

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