Emotions, Not Logic, Drive Home Decisions

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, May 23, 2009

When I first started writing about new homes 16 years ago, I found some of the features in them nonsensical.

Every house, even the smallest ones, had a formal living and dining area that most households would rarely use. When I asked the sales agents and their builder bosses about this, their response was always the same.

It's a resale concern.

The demise of these rarely used formal spaces has been predicted many times, but I still see them in new houses. Are people really driven to spend such huge amounts for rooms they might use four times a year, just because they're concerned about resale?

Actually, maybe not. The driving force behind buyers' irrational choices is not practical concerns such as resale, one author argues. It's emotions.

Our buying decisions on any house are entirely emotionally based, according to Jonah Lehrer, author of "How We Decide" (Houghton Mifflin) and a former neuroscience researcher. In the first two or three minutes you are in a model home, your sensory organs are feeding data into the emotional centers of your brain. As you glance at the living room, these emotional centers rapidly register the details: red sofa (you love red), chair like grandpa's, rug like the one your ex-wife took, view out back of dead grass, walls blue (you hate that shade). Then, on the spot, the emotional networks vote up or down. The deal starts or ends with the firing of a few billion neurons.

If our nearly instantaneous visceral response is positive, our dopamine receptors go into overdrive, Lehrer said. They make us want that house, and they make us want it immediately. That's why an experienced real estate agent watches buyers with such intensity in those first few moments, ready to pull out a sales contract in a nanosecond, Lehrer said in an interview.

Once your emotions have voiced their opinions, a different set of neurons in the frontal cortex, which control your brain's "executive function," start to kick in. They generate seemingly logical reasons why a particular house is the one, Lehrer said. As you continue to think about this purchase, your list of good reasons gets longer: It has all the formal living and dining space that we need for resale! We'll have a place to put great aunt Julia's living room set, which we just inherited! We can have romantic dinners for two by the fireplace in the family room!

Simultaneously, our dopamine receptors keep up the drumbeat: Hey you, model home sales agent, this is a beautiful house! Make this mortgage work!

Unfortunately, our immediate emotional responses have a major downside, Lehrer said. Our dopamine receptors tell us how we feel and what we want in the moment, but they don't signal anything about the potential consequences of satisfying our desires.

After you have moved into your new house, the negatives you avoided when you bought it begin to emerge, Lehrer said. You realize that living in that location adds two hours to your daily commute, leaving you too exhausted to enjoy all that space or have that romantic dinner. When you start getting sky-high utility bills, you realize that choosing the seductive kitchen over the insulation upgrade wasn't so smart.

House size is another home-buying irrationality. Beyond a certain point, more square footage will not increase the owners' utility or their enjoyment, but buyers always seem to want the biggest house they can afford. Although neuroscience has not yet explained the irresistible pull of bigness, Lehrer said we're clearly wired to be status seekers and to want things that make us look better in the eyes of others. At a distance of 500 feet, nothing telegraphs success better than a big house.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company