Dear Irrational (is it rational to visit mother?)

April 19, 2008 BY danariely

Dear Irrational,I dearly love your book. I now have a question.When my father passed away, I only had my mother left. I started to make more trips to Davenport, Iowa, to visit her on the weekends. I felt that I didn’t want to not know her in her old age when she died. My behavior implies that I value her more than before. I am wondering if that’s rational and reflects relative scarcity and Economics is the science of scarcity). Don’t you think that economics has answered this philosophical question and that my behavior is rational?Mikep.s. My comments on how economics applies to everyday life can be found at www.mikeroeconomics.blogspot.com.————————————————————-Dear Mike,I am sorry for your loss.However, like the rest of us, your behavior is not rational.I suspect that after your father passed away, you experienced the emotional intensity of loss combined with regret (for not visiting him more often).In terms of emotions, while death is all around us, it is impossible to feel what it is like to lose someone close to you until you experience it first hand. Reading about loss, or talking to people who have experienced a loss, is just not enough to make us truly feel what it is like. So after losing your father, you experienced this pain, which made the idea of losing your mother even more frightening. These intense emotions also created your need to alleviate future regret, resulting in more frequent trips to visit your mother.I don’t think that your behavior is driven by scarcity (one parent vs. two), but I do suspect that your new understanding of what it feels like to lose a parent made you value your living parent—your mother—more.As for the question of whether this is rational or not. I don’t think that it is (but at the same time it is completely human). First, the idea that you have to experience something in order to be able to predict its effect on you is not rational. According to standard economic theory, we should be able to look into the future and calculate the benefits and costs of future situations whether we have experienced them personally (winning the lottery, having a car accident) or not. Without this ability we are unable to make any rational, one-time decisions (which university to study at, the best way to celebrate our 40th birthday, undergoing a specific medical treatment etc.), or even long-term decisions (savings, health, having kids, etc).Second, regret is a very strange emotion because it means that your happiness is not influenced by your actual state, but by the ease of imagining a state that you are not in. Consider, for example, which person would be more upset in the following scenario: someone who misses their flight by 2 minutes or someone who misses their flight by 2 hours. I think we can agree that the person who misses his flight by 2 minutes would feel much more regret and misery. Now, both people would be stuck in Newark for 5 hours with bad airport food so their reality would be the same. But the difference between them is the ease with which they are able to imagine a different reality. Of course there is an infinite number of alternative states—one could have won the lottery, had a heart attack, etc., but they wouldn’t imagine any of these, and neither do we. We simply compare our current state to a state that comes easily to mind and this determines our happiness and actions.These, my friend, are just two reasons why your reaction is irrational. At the same time this does not mean that you should stop visiting your mother, and I hope you don’t.Irrationally yours,Dan