Doing the best we can with our brains

Positivity vs objectivity

I recently watched one of SBRE Brown’s videos, titled Justifying Expensive Pens in Reviews and Cognitive Dissonance Reduction, which is all about the knots you tie yourself in to manage psychological trauma when you’ve made large pen purchases, as well as whether it’s possible to objectively review expensive pens you’ve bought, versus ones you’ve been loaned.

As a person who buys and reviews expensive pens rather often, this is a topic I think about a lot.

I agree with Brown about the mental gymnastics of reconciling ‘cognitive dissonance’, but there’s a point that I think he missed.

He basically says that when he actually chooses to spend his own money on a pen, it’s because he likes that pen, and consequently he is more likely to give it a positive review. As opposed to a pen loaned at random by Appelboom, which may not be at all to his taste, and that he can comment on impartially.

I get that point: my reviews too are generally positive because I only review pens that I like the look of. I rarely bother to buy or borrow pens that I expect to dislike. I expect you don’t either.

But I think the reason we feel positively about the pens we’ve actually paid for is much deeper than simply pre-selection: you feel obliged to ignore their flaws in order to validate the quality of your decision and protect your self image.

Nobody likes to be proven wrong

If you accept that the pen you just blew a grand on is no good, a few bad things happen:

  • You feel like an idiot for making a mistake (as well as the cognitive dissonance Brown speaks of, which is essentially the discomfort of spending a lot of money on something unnecessary that you must then rationalise).
  • Your research skills and reputation as a knowledgeable, discerning person are called into question (and after all we’re talking about enthusiasts and bloggers here).
  • You realise that the expensive paperweight you just bought is now a physical reminder of a bad decision, and you must choose from a number of painful options to deal with it (sell it at a loss, go through the hassle of returns, throw more money to get it fixed or modified).

The answer is of course to wherever possible minimise risk by buying “safe”, and not to spend more on a pen than you can afford to. But when it comes to expensive purchases in particular, a number of other psychological factors come into play to complicate this advice.

We are biased towards expense and risk

There’s a known psychological phenomenon that we actually measurably enjoy things more if we’re primed that they’re expensive (whether it’s wine or headphones). It’s exciting to review an expensive pen simply because it’s a premium item.

I think we also often enjoy things more if they’re difficult with a risk of failure. It demonstrates to the general public that we’re discerning enthusiasts that go to unusual lengths in pursuit of our hobby, like attending pen shows and commissioning custom pieces or nib work. It’s the same principle behind “adventure travel” instead of taking the well-trodden and easy path of the package holiday to Spain.

If a product ‘just worked’, it wouldn’t have the charm of vintage flex, a temperamental Italian car, or a mechanical watch that’s less accurate than a cheap quartz. Perversely, we often buy these expensive things because they’re impractical, even though by any rational scoring logic they are outperformed by a Lamy Safari.

And when you get to status symbols like fountain pens, there’s a social component to this too: at least part of the reason to spend so much money on an object is to let other people know that you can. It’s a transgressive act to spend so much money on a pen that your co-workers stand slack-jawed when you tell them. The price tag is part of the pleasure.

So all  these things run through my head when I buy another expensive pen, as I went through in my last post.

It’s impossible to expect objective reviews of luxury items

The heart of Brown’s discussion is whether you can objectively analyse an expensive pen when you’ve bought it yourself, when you’re invested in it.

Actually, I think it’s impossible to objectively analyse any luxury item, whether you’ve spent your own money on it or not.

At this price point you’re not making purely functional evaluations. If your new Montblanc is not as smooth as a Pilot Prera, does that actually affect your pleasure? Is that the reason you bought the Montblanc? Writing performance is certainly a factor, but I’m sure it’s not the only thing driving our decision — otherwise we’d all be using those Lamy Safaris and getting on with more normal hobbies.

We’re buying into a lifestyle and status, obviously, but it’s not quite as superficial as that. It’s also pledging allegiance to a particular heritage and brand ethos, pursuing a diminishing return of manufacturing excellence, and exploring the niches of design, materials, packaging and so on. In these circumstances it’s very difficult to write a purely objective review, because objectivity is impossible.

Some people would call me an idiot, or irresponsible, for spending £600+ on a pen simply to make rather ungainly scribbles on a page. Sometimes I think that about myself. But I keep buying them. I get pleasure from both the pre-ownership acts of research, purchase and anticipation, and from the post-arrival experiences of unboxing, inking and using the pen.

Is that pleasure something you can quantify and validate, to ensure that a review of an expensive pen is fair and balanced? Probably not. And perhaps you shouldn’t. There is very little about the purchase of any pen that can be ranked as truly “better”: heavy or light, big or small, wet or dry, garish or boring, smooth or scratchy, cheap or expensive — we have individual preferences for all of these factors.

So I’ll continue to get excited in my reviews of all pens, expensive ones included. As a reader, consuming reviews on other blogs, I enjoy the impressions and emotions that come across in the written word. I hope some of my readers enjoy the same qualities in my reviews, too.


3 thoughts on “Doing the best we can with our brains

  1. I’m new to the pen game and have just taken ownership of my second entry level pen (TWSBI Eco).
    I’ve barely written with it, but I’m already considering my next pen… considering the colour options, nib size etc.
    I should be absorbed in getting to know my new pen, and I will, but there’s something in the brain of the hobbyist that is always thinking of the next level. Always wanting to push the limits.
    And I think that’s a good thing.
    Thanks for the great blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s