Six Dollar Ice Cream and Absurd Rationality

Earlier this month, I found myself outside of a so-called “boutique” ice cream parlor in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle at 10:30pm on a Saturday night.  The temperature was 38 degrees, and it was beginning to sprinkle.  I was waiting in the wet cold because so many people were packed inside, patiently anticipating their own chance to fork over $6 for made-to-order waffle cones filled with homemade flavors with names like ‘balsamic strawberry,’ that the door itself could barely open — let alone admit another customer.

Jumping up and down to stay warm, I had time to contemplate which was less logical: my decision to wait, or the fact that we were all there in the first place.  In the midst of the worst economic storm in decades, with pink slips piling up in every sector of the economy and consumer spending in a serious funk, here were dozens of people clamoring over each other to buy a premium-priced frozen treat; a consumption experience with a shelf life of roughly twenty minutes.  In January.  In Seattle.  In the rain.

And yet, somehow I was surrounded by completely logical decisions.  As Molly Moon herself told the Seattle Weekly, “it’s one of the cheapest things you can do in Seattle at night.”  Indeed, at the level of cold cash calculation, a scoop of cardamom is easily half the cost of a movie ticket.  It fits at a cultural level, too — Seattleites have survived for more than a century by finding spots of disingenuous sunshine under the cloud cover.

Today I’ve been thumbing through James Galbraith’s (yes, son of Johnrant on the deep ironies of markets.  Tongue firmly in cheek, he reviews the all-too recent realization of behavioral economists that people do not, in fact, always act rationally in a micro-economic context.  Shockingly, empirical studies show that people don’t consistently make predictable decisions even when markets operate at ‘ideal’ conditions.  Galbraith interprets:

These are remarkably subversive findings, for they suggest that even if there were no monopoly, no externalities, perfect information, and perfect foresight, markets composed of real people would still not perform as the [classic conservative] vision requires.

Call me captain obvious, but here’s a shot-from-the-hip hypothesis for James:

  1. Logic is entirely contextual.  People make what they feel are rational decisions based on the resources available at the time of the decision — including, yes, their inherently distorted perceptions of self, others, time, consequence, and the world around them.
  2. Micro rationalities can quickly add up to absurdity.  Let’s all save money and skip the movies, and pretty soon we’re waiting in the cold for ice cream.
  3. Rational absurdities become macro realities that are difficult to shake.  In other words, we logic our way into entirely illogical situations which then re-frame the rules of context in which logical decisions must be made.  Credit default swaps, anyone?

So what does any of this have to do with meta-brand green?  Beats me.  Depending on what side you’re standing on, living sustainably is either a series of serious decisions that throw the finger to centuries of worldwide lunacy… or a tirade of follies that fall hopelessly against the wall of capital-r Reality.

Maybe it’s time to stop selling green as the smart thing to do.  Crazy as it sounds, maybe there really is more promise in pitching to the whimsy of doing something different; to the sense of mischief born on a damp sidewalk in January.

After all, it worked for ice cream.

© Ryan Cunningham 2009

1 Response to “Six Dollar Ice Cream and Absurd Rationality”

  1. 1 MJ January 27, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Ryan, you made me smile. I can just see you jumping up and down in the rain waiting for ice cream and then suddenly realizing the absurdity. I’m guessing it made you laugh out loud, too.

    Isn’t this what helps make life so wonderful – the absurdity and the unpredictability (not a real word, I know). These, at least, are what I love in movies and books.

    I clicked on the idea of “logic our way into illogical situations”. It recalls (although, in entirely different veins) somethings I find myself doing – “organizing myself into disorganization” or “saving my way into being broke”.

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thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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