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Skimping On Those Who Need It
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic focuses on an odd behavior we have as humans where we are incredibly picky about providing money to those in need while not thinking twice about overpaying for indulgent, and largely unnecessary surplus. We hold back on paying fair prices to some while forking over crazy money for a Tesla that makes Elon Musk one of the richest men in the world.
A Lady asks: "How much do you sell your eggs for?"
The old vendor replies "50¢ an egg, madam."
The Lady says, “I'll take 6 eggs for $2.50 or I'm leaving.”
The old salesman replies, “Buy them at the price you want, Madam. This is a good start for me because I haven't sold a single egg today and I need this to live.”
She buys her eggs at a bargain price and leaves with the feeling that she won. She gets into her fancy car and goes to a fancy restaurant with her friend. She and her friend ordered what they wanted. They ate a little and left a lot of what they had asked for. They paid the bill, which was $150, and leave a $50 tip for the fancy restaurant owner...
This story might seem quite normal to the owner of the fancy restaurant, but very unfair to the egg seller...
The question it raises is:
Why do we always need to show that we have power when we buy from the needy?
And why are we generous to those who don't even need our generosity?
I once read somewhere that a fellow used to buy goods from poor people at high prices, even though he didn't need the things. Sometimes he paid more for them. The takeaway for paying higher prices in this case was “charity wrapped in dignity."
The Moral Applied
In 2012 I was in Laos and visiting a local market to buy suvineers. I was haggling over a wood carving that had clearly taken some time to make and was beautiful (see picture) I had bartered him down to $25 and was trying to get lower.
A man I had been talking with at the market was watching and quietly commented, “Two dollars for you is nothing. But for him, it’s probably a day’s wages.” I immediately stopped and ended up paying $30, which was still a good deal.
So why do we drive such a hard bargain for those with the least means while dropping $9 on a Starbucks without a second thought?
Why do we haggle at Farmer’s Markets and then go to Whole Foods and buy lesser quality for higher prices?
It all comes down to the dopamine. We get two hits. The first is when we score a good price on an item, the second is when we splurge on a luxury.
In the end, it really only takes a simple reframe to change this:
Make the farmer’s market the luxury and Whole Foods the necessity.
Buy from the roadside Mexican stand instead of going to Chili’s (or whichever your local food truck specialty is (Canadians, I’m looking at your Poutine!)
Shop at the local stores and not the big box.
Support street performers as much as Taylor Swift.
Or as my wife’s grandfather used to do at Plant City in Central Florida; Buy the fruits and veggies and then hand the kid loading them an extra buck, “Just for you.”
I won’t deny this is something I have to consciously force myself to reconceptualize on a regular basis. I have to stop the flow of dopamine in one direction, reframe it, and reprogram it in a separate direction.
When we pause and think about it, and you consider all the great content creators out there in our own milieu, and you compare that $2 toward the effort being made in art, writing, street performers, or even that little extra to someone working hard and just scraping by, the satisfaction of supporting them can go a long way.
It is an odd behavior in many ways when you think about it, but then again, it’s also explainable and therefore actionable to change. It’s an interesting psychological quirk and one we have full control over.
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