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Framing Effects in the Boonies

November 11th, 2005 · 3 Comments

An old friend and ex-D.C. resident mentioned over IM that Dahlia Lithwick, Slate‘s excellent senior editor/legal correspondent, was coming to town to speak. He added:

The nice thing about the boonies is that visits by important, interesting people almost never overlap with each other. Furthermore, they’re kept at a manageable level such that you can see almost all the ones you want and still have time for schoolwork and errands and shit.

Note that my friend’s a University of Virginia grad student, so “the boonies” here means Charlottesville, a designation only a lifelong urbanite could apply. There’s obviously, in a sense, something funny, maybe even irrational, about that attitude. There might be 15 interesting events in a month in D.C., of which, because of conflicts either between them or with your own work, you can only attend 10. And it seems a little odd to prefer living in a town that only has five such events just because you get to attend them all. Why should you be more displeased to miss a good speaker for those reasons than you are to miss the speaker because they don’t come to town in the first place?

Of course, from our ordinary less-than-fully-rational point of view, that attitude makes perfect sense. We think about what we’re missing out on in a bounded context, a pool of relevant options: You may be more upset that the cute woman who works in Accounting won’t give you the time of day than you are that Halle Berry doesn’t seem particularly interested either—even though the latter might constitute the bigger “loss” if you’re looking at an unrestricted option set. So you lament the talk you have to miss because work or another event take precedence, but not the one you have to miss because it’s in California—unless, perhaps, the one in California is an exceptionally appealing. So, say, you might not expend any thought over the fact that a band you really like is only playing on the other coast this tour, whereas you do if it’s a concert festival with a lineup that includes a lot of your favorite bands.

For those of us still living in larger cities, it seems there’s an obvious way around this: Pick a friend who knows your tastes well, and whose tastes you know, but who has substantially different tastes from your own. Then trade schedules. They’ll pass along the appealing-seeming events they know you can make it to, and vice versa, without bothering to taunt you with the ones you can’t.

Tags: Sociology



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J. Goard // Nov 14, 2005 at 4:32 am

    That strategy makes sense if you determine your available time entirely independently of future events that you wish to attend. However, most people seem to have a complex array of differently costly mechanisms for rescheduling.

    Now suppose that you were to list a whole slew of potential events with a 10-point rating, so that your friend could tell you the value you need to weigh against the cost of adjusting your schedule. Would it hurt less to know you’re missing an 8 than to be able to reflect on the precise event you’re missing?

  • 2 ruthless pedant // Nov 14, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    This is not on-point, but: It’s my understanding that Dahlia Lithwick lives in Charlottesville. So there are slightly fewer visits by interesting, important people there than even your friend believes.

  • 3 friend // Nov 15, 2005 at 5:51 pm


    you’re right! Lithwick does live in C’ville.

    Nevertheless, it’s still true that interesting people stop up in here at a surprising clip. And it’s true that I rarely miss one. I understand that this is a weird framing effect, but hey, whatever.