Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fixer Upper Fallacy

Frozen is undoubtedly one giant leap forward for Disney. I can only fault it on two points -

1. The Disney Princesses still promote unrealistic body images for girls.
2. There is a song about how a guy is a 'Fixer Upper'

Which you know, was dropping the ball. Olaf wasn't a fixer upper at all. He was kind, handsome, courageous, generous, honest, risk taking etc. Olaf is one of the least flawed love interests Disney has ever offered young girls. The one redemption being that Olaf's shortcomings in the song are superficialities, like manner and presentation.

Those things, ironically are the easiest to fix, or change. That's a relative term though. Clothes and appearance are a matter of self expression and attempting to change them can be met with a surprising amount of resentment and hostility.


I conflate the 'Fixer Upper' concept in a partner with the 'Op-Shop Find', I think that's the myth people are drawn to and it has its roots in a persons self esteem, or lack there-of. I speak from personal experience and much reflection. I just suspect it's a really common belief.

What do I mean by the 'Op-Shop Find'? I was reminded last night of the Simpson's episode where Marge finds a Chanel dress on sale in a thrift store and subsequently enters a new strata of society. Making the story of the Op-Shop find, practically proverbial. So everyone going into an Op-shop I believe is looking for a bargain. They are looking for the items there that don't belong there. They are looking for something they can't afford at a price they can afford.

The trouble with the analogy is that we know Op-shop finds exist. I have no direct observed data point that when it comes to relationships, someone has ever snatched a bargain.

I would use this fascinating article to support my observation that this is a pretty common fallacy/human driver.

What I feel is human, all too human, is to actually go looking for some superficial flaw in people, like a dented soup can, We can handle a dent in the soup can, because the soup is still delicious but the store might give me a discount for taking the 'damaged' stock.

Hence you get a bunch of people, lots of people (especially me) that decide they can put up with lying, anxiety, depression, greed, narcissism etc. I'm not saying some hellish combination of all these traits, but rather - "I can take the dishonesty this person displays because they are so intelligent, beautiful, vivacious, enthusiastic etc. "

The result in my case has been to constantly overestimate the superficiality of a character flaw. And overestimate my abilities to withstand it, to 'put up' with it.

Which is where you move from 'Op-Shop' find, to 'Fixer Upper'.


Let's be charitable. Let us suppose that it can be done. But I should be clear, I am being charitable.

Let us suppose that somebody can be 'fixed up'. What does that mean? It means that somebody changes, to suit you. The italics part is the crucial

I do believe people can change, people have for example beaten addiction and achieved lasting sobriety. People can have mental health issues that are episodic or transitional. People become Vegans and, permitting me to be facetious, Vegans have been known to become people again.

Virtually everyone develops from childhood into maturity. People also generally adopt the norms of their social environment, change in the social environment is perhaps the biggest driver of change in individuals.

Having said that, a 'personality' is functionally a collection of behavioral traits that are stable over time. The best predictor of future behavior is subsequently, the past relevant behavior.

That is not the change we are charitably believing can happen. I'm talking about the process of changing someone into who you want them to be.

Let's say it can be done. This change could take place independently and spontaneously. In which case you are the recipient of dumb luck. Good for you, but it doesn't sound like a plan.

A plan sounds like building compassion, empathy and understanding to create strategies and incentives that bring about the desired change. It requires a mutual undertaking and investment of considerable time and energy that is expensive. It is a huge project of indeterminate duration, that we are charitably speculating can be done. Can be achieved.

I say the project is an expensive one. At whose expense?

The obvious candidate is you. In Gordon Livingston's book 'How To Love' where he advises against the pursuit of Narcissists, Hystrionics, Deppressives, Anxious, Borderline and Foolish partners the key cost he outlines is that these people 'waste our time'. The single most precious resource we have.

The second candidate is your partner, or prospective partner, though they remain the most likely candidate to also benefit from the change. After all if a person can beat a substance abuse problem thanks to your efforts and caregiving, regardless of how the relationship turns out they are objectively better off.

The third, and perhaps most crucial candidate who pays the price for the (presumed successful) endeavor to enact change - and this has become an article of faith for me, though the evidence is coming in slowly - is that our efforts to make somebody become the person we want them to be, is at the direct expense of the person who actually is that person already.


That pair of jeans you found in the store that just needs some 'minor' repairs to be 'good as new' may come with a $20 discount over the non-defective pair of jeans they were sitting right on top of. 3 months later they have simply become your 'round the house' pair because you never got around to fixing them and the fly never closes. And you saved $1 on the can of soup that had been dropped and dented, only to find the warp in the metal took you 15 minutes to manually get the can opener to chew through it. And you wound up spending 3 hours driving across town to borrow an obscure book from a library when you could have bought it at a cover price less than your hourly wage.

There are conceivable scenarios where we underestimate the superficiality of flaws in physical goods. Personality defects, even when only relative to our own preferences are several orders of magnitude greater in our ability to underestimate. Some of us, even idealize them.

There is to my understanding no book in the world that advises looking for a partner that is 'broken' and to fix them up in order to obtain a partner you would not have been able to obtain in the first place. The underlying assumption is that your efforts to fix will be rewarded with loyalty and appreciation, rather than resentment and frustration.

Even though nobody has ever that I know of, given this advice explicitly, I feel like it is one that is commonly subscribed to. It possibly sustains many a psychoanalyst's practice.

Understand though, even allowing for the possibility that the strategem might work, it remains a costly and unethical one.

No comments: