Neurocarbuying*: How to buy a car using the science of decision-making Part One

*Quite possible the the worst Neuro-“Blank” combination yet; I’m sticking to it.

Standard car.  I will contend though that the Accord is a lot more fun to drive than its competitors.
Rational car
truck and more 059
Emotional car.

 

There are many guides to how to buy a used car, but how many are written by a neuroscientist?  Do they need to be written by a neuroscientist? Probably not.

Either way,  I am asked regularly for advice on how to buy a car.   In a multi-part series, I am going to discuss what I have learned about how to evaluate used cars.  I will add healthy doses of scientific conjecture based on the science of decision-making to support my points.

The first principle of buying a car is to know that nobody sells a perfect car (consequently, nobody buys a perfect car either). Your decision will come with risk, you will be buying a car that may break down,  or may contain issues you don’t see.  These risks are why it is nice to buy a new car, but many times we do not want to pay for the depreciation of a new car.  Even new cars are not perfect, as some break sooner than others, some cost more to own,  you have to deal with car dealers, etc.

So how to start?

First, many people will say that, “First, you need to not get emotional! Don’t Freak out! Don’t buy a car with extra doodads you don’t need!” You can tell them this: “I will use the correct amount of emotion; I will use different emotions to evaluate various aspects of the car buying decision process.  Emotion guides good decision making, and there are no decisions devoid of emotion, thank you.”

Really, when people say, “Don’t get emotional!” They really mean: “Don’t Panic! ” (They are often panicking when they say this, which is ironic).  It’s okay though, they are just reminding you to use different emotions, not panic, to guide how you decide.

Car buying is a great example of difficult and equivocal decision-making.  You will be pulled in multiple directions by reasonable competing interests:

Most of these interests revolve around cost.  You will probably desire a car that is more expensive than your budget.  Some cars cost a lot more at first, but don’t depreciate and cost very little to own i.e. new Toyotas.  Others just cost a lot all the time: i.e. European cars.

Other factors involved in cost:

-Cost of ownership–Older cars cost more since they break more often, certain brands cost more.

-Depreciation Value–You will probably want a car that has lower value than you should actually purchase, i.e. old BMWs.

-Usage–you will probably want a car that does different things than you have regular need for, i.e. In my case: old 4runners, Corvettes.

-Reliability–you may desire a car that is less reliable than a Honda, i.e. everything not named Toyota.

The list could go on and on for determining the subjective value of the car, so let’s actually simplify a bit here.

Ask two questions:

1. What do I need to do with this car?

2. How long do I need to keep the car?

If you need a car to drive more than 20 miles one way to work every day, and you need to keep the car for more than 4 years, buy a Honda or Toyota sedan with as little mileage as you can afford. This may seem pretty boring, and well, it is.  It seems “logical” and “non-emotional” but in fact there is plenty of positive emotion involved.

If you have (1) a long commute, with (2) long term ownership, and (3) you must still have some fun in your car, the compromise is probably to purchase something made in Japan, but perhaps with a V6 and/or a stickshift.  Car and Driver has chosen the EX stickshift Accord to its 10-best car for close to 30 years in a row due to its balance of reliability and fun driving characteristics.  Is it a sports car? No.  If you get the V6 Accord made after 2009, it will have nearly 300 horsepower, decent handling and decent mpgs.  I also have an opinion that recent V6 Mustangs are not too bad of cars, and are pretty cheap to own if you get one with low mileage.  Many are abused like a bus seat, but if it is well-maintained I don’t think it will bite you too badly.  If you only drive yourself, Mazda Miatas are good cars if you can find one in good condition or buy new.

I am using the above situation  (someone who has a long commute and not enough money to buy a new car every year)  as a case study to examine how you should read into your emotions while you are choosing a model of car to buy. Don’t fight against yourself when you’re thinking about that Corvette, because it probably would be awesome to drive a Corvette to work…for a week or two, but doing so for years will probably not be as amazing as you think. Corvettes are not particularly reliable cars, so after a four or five years of ownership, you are unlikely to be able to throw down a traffic ridden commute for 15,000 miles a year without any problems. When you imagine yourself trying to live with a car that breaks often, how does that feel?  When you imagine yourself in 5 or 8 years with a car that has never broken and has done every possible thing it’s supposed to do, how does that feel?

I’m going to say something a little unexpected here: If you really feel your way through these two scenarios and you’re really just there in your overalls still thinking, “Corvette!” then I’d say hey go for it, honestly.  It is almost certainly a costly decision over the long term, but it’s not like I’m saying you can go buy drugs or something, it’s just a car and if you can live with the severe consequences, which include what you inflict on others, then fine.  I’m not trying to persuade people with this post to all buy Hondas.  I’m trying to persuade people to think about emotion and decision-making in a new light, and hopefully to provide some real life car buying advice that is helpful.

What is the nature of emotion and decision making? It boils down to a simple question: How do you know when you’ve made a good decision?  At the end of the reasoning behind your answer, it is going to be simple: “Because it feels good.” The more pertinent question may be: “How do you judge the long term consequences of a decision?” At some point, again, it will be, “I think it was a good decision because the result felt good.” So the key then is to use the proper feelings during the time of the decision to effect the outcome that feels good and will continue to feel good.

A lot of this goes out the window if you do not need to commute long distances in the car, and you only need the car for a short time.  Also, if you are very wealthy, then much of this is moot–go ahead and buy that Turbo Audi Quattro.

So it seems like there are two choices: a rational Accord, and an emotional Audi.  On the one hand, we can imagine buying a beautiful Audi or Jaguar and what that will entail.  You will earn praise from people that may think you’re wealthy enough to afford one.  You will be able to enjoy the luxurious options and oddball German engineering.  The suspension will be taught, the steering heavy and the driving experience quite nice.  But extend this out a few months, and a few years.  These cars will break more often, and will depreciate faster.  How will you feel when you go to sell it and you see that its value is half of what you paid for it, when a comparable Accord has only depreciated incrementally?  How will it feel when it requires a trip to the dealership to fix something basic and it costs $1000 for every minor service?  Will you feel smart about your purchase?   Imagine the disappointment when your attempt at flouting the need for a reliable car fails and you have to spend tons of money on your pre-owned Audi. Well sure, maybe you find the car that survives the test of time, but think about it according to probabilities and weigh how you’ll feel in these options.

Now for the rational Accord.  People will praise you for making a smart decision and buying a good car, but these are different types of compliments than for the Audi.  In the short term, you may feel a sense of disappointment at the idea of buying a rational car like an Accord– like you’re letting your “fun” self down. But now imagine when you sell the car and it is worth nearly what you paid for it, imagine how it will feel to know that the car will always run well, and be cheap to fix if it is needed.  Imagine the feeling of being able to depend on a machine to get the job done for you no matter what, like an Oak dining table. That feeling of relying on something is a positive, and powerful feeling–it is not more “rational,” it is a different feeling than the sugar rush of buying a riskier car.

In the folk psychology of “emotion” and “logic,” the Accord is the logical bet and the Audi is the “emotional” bet.  However, if you observe your decision-making process, you can see that both options will foster specific feelings and emotions.  Postponing the rewarding aspects of the purchase leads to its own kind of reward.  I am not actually advocating one or the other, just trying to change how we think about feeling and decision-making.

Onward.  Here is my brand specific advice:

Best long term prospects: Honda, Toyota, Acura, Lexus.

Probably will be good long term: Subaru, Nissan, Mazda, Fords (will have cheap things break), Chevy trucks, Jeeps with the 4.0 straight six (many other things will likely break, but the motor will keep going, okay don’t buy Jeeps).

Might be okay for a couple of years: Well-maintained German cars, Volvos.

Bad, probably going to break and cost a lot: Anything British or Italian, most Dodges, Jeeps, and any car that has been beaten and abused.

A lot of variability in used cars comes down to how well it was taken care of.  A well-maintained Ford will probably outlast a clapped out Camry where the oil has been changed every 50000 miles–whether it needs it or not! Not many cars will outlast a Honda or a Toyota if it is well-maintained.

So what’s happening in your brain when you’re choosing what type of car to buy?

Well, I don’t think there are any fMRI of experiments of car-buying. And mouse studies of car buying, though very cute to think about, are underdeveloped.  Because of this, I’m going to use all conjecture to continue.

The fact is, the body came before the brain, evolutionarily speaking.  Back when life was goopy, there was a body with a life force.  A single-celled organism that had to float around seeking food and reproduction, and avoiding pain. It did not “feel,” but it still had to use some sort of a system to guide its exploration of the environment.  Single-celled organisms show remarkably sophisticated ways of navigating their environment, no frontal lobes necessary thank you very much.

But, things evolved, and as they did, more sophisticated ways of using the environment to guide behavior emerged, encoded by a nervous system.  The nervous system serves the body.  The nature of emotion is to be a running stream of internal processes guiding behavior to protect the body.  When we experience these emotions, that is a feeling.  Feelings are the awareness of emotions. We do not feel all emotions.  Emotions are not single objects, emotion is an ongoing process, like a river with stuff in it.

So here you are now, progeny of millions of years of descent with modification, free of the shackles of the food chain, successor of Earth’s brutal life tournament winners, thinking of whether or not you an “An Accord kind of person.”

Each possible car-decision carries with it an emotional value.  There are not options without emotion, since emotion is the ongoing process of your body evaluating the consequences of reward and punishment for the stimuli in front of you.  Imagining how you would feel for each type of car to buy brings these processes into mind, eliciting feelings.  Your brain is not just a receptor here, it should be obvious, because you can guide yourself into thoughts that will elicit emotion, and you can experience these emotions, like bouncing a dry ball through a puddle, down and back up, now wet into your hand.

The key is to not run from the feelings in each, but to carefully ascribe feelings the proper place in terms of how each option means something for your body.  You crave the candy-hotdog of the Corvette, but you know you will have health issues because of it.  You can feel, maybe, that a safe choice will feel good over time, because of the lack of dramatic events–but these are still feelings.  There is not really a “logic” brain, and an “emotional” brain, but instead distributed networks that incorporate cognitive evaluation and emotion into decision-making.  In addition, there are parts of the brain that process subjective value, and parts of the brain that weigh competing options.  Logical thinking is a type of feeling-guided thinking, the end result still provides a feeling that you’ve made a good decision, maybe it’s more the relief of knowing that you’ve weighed your options and your outcomes and you feel a good decision.  How does it feel to solve a math problem?  It feels good, right!  At some level, that feeling will influence how you think about problems in the future.  The feeling at the end of a “logical” decision still has a feeling, and that’s how you know you’re done deciding.

Stay tuned for part two where I will talk more about how to actually evaluate cars as you find them.