Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eyeglasses and Identity

I have wanted new glasses for a few years, and probably needed to update my prescription for just as long. Occasionally I would stop into a glasses store and try frames on. A couple of times I found a pair that I liked, but never did one seem exactly right. Choosing a pair of glasses is a commitment. Few objects, if any, communicate more immediately, obviously, or frequently about their owner.

I had been primarily looking at metal frames, bold colors, and 'designerly' styles. However, last week I walked into a store with a large selection of frames and came across a section of authentic-looking vintage frames. I asked to try one pair on, a subtly variegated dark horn-rim, just for fun, not expecting much. But I was surprised to really like them. I then found out from the salesperson that they were unworn deadstock frames bought from an optometrists's estate that included a cellar of still-boxed glasses that dated from the turn of the century to the 70's.

I went back to the store today to try them on again and get my girlfriend's opinion. They had moved the section, and it took a while to find that frame, even though it was the only one I had tried on last week. While I was considering the possibility that someone else had already bought them in the interim, I realized that I definitely did want them.

Which reminds me of another decision-making concept from Stumbling on Happiness: "we generally do not sit down with a sheet of paper and start logically listing the pros and cons of the future events we are contemplating, but rather, we contemplate them by simulating those events in our imaginations and then noting our emotional reactions to that simulation." Decision-making is far from a purely rational act - as demonstrated in this edition of Radiolab on choice that tells the story of "Elliot", a successful corporate accountant
(at the 20:30 mark). Due to brain surgery to remove a tumor in the orbital frontal cortex, he lost the ability to experience emotions. An effect was Elliot's complete paralysis in any type of decision-making, logically analyzing each decision forever - like taking a half hour to decide to sign a contract with a blue pen or a red pen. Eventually he got divorced, lost his job, and moved back in with his parents. Obviously, emotions play an important role in decision-making.

Back to the frames, I immediately knew I had found them from the way the left temple felt on my ear. I again liked them and knew from my emotional reaction I wanted them, so after a little debate, decided to buy them. This purchase is a great opportunity to document the habituation process of an object in my life.

If consumption today is curating an identity, or brand, glasses are quite possibly the logo.

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