The Master Manipulator
A college economics professor one time told me that people whose chosen career is higher education continue learning more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. I think he was making a joke, but since he’s an economist one can never be certain.
I see a parallel with aging family members; of all the things that have happened in our lives my grandparents tend to latch onto a few stories from the past and without fail every time we get together they bring up one in particular and try to get me to retell it.
Daniel Kahneman talks about the idea that there are two types of selfs: our experiencing selves and our remembering selves. He shows that the happiness we experience as we remember what we experiences is NOT directly proportional to the actual experience. There’s a lot more science to it, but you can read the book for the details. I’ll just share with you why it’s important: experiences appreciate with time whereas material goods depreciate. Thus one of the secrets to a happy life is to invest in experiences. And because your happiness is linearly related, you merely need to have a brief fun experience in order to reap the benefits of that joy for years down the road.
I already shared my Candy Man story, and maybe someday I’ll share the time my brother and I hid and laughed under the couch while my parents called 911 because they thought he and I had been kidnapped. But that’s for another time: this is all about the birth of a what my Grandma would term the “master manipulator”!
When my brother, sister, and I were younger my mom would often visit her parents since they lived so close. Seeing as I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 and was the oldest of the three kids we would go along. Aside from the fact that my Grandpa cheated at every game he played with us (ostensibly to see whether we were smart enough to notice) we enjoyed spending time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. They had a basement that was just finished enough for us to play in without having to worry about damaging anything. They also had a fully stocked snack drawer that would always be refilled no matter how much we ate. The three of us would seemingly take turns to avoid rousing suspicion, but every time we went over there one of us would undoubtably ask “Grandma, can we have a snack?”. If any of you have ever been fortunate enough to be blessed with a grandma then you know what her answer would always be: “Yes of course!”
My economics professor would be happy to hear me reference this situation as a simple tragedy of the commons: my siblings and I probably did gorge ourselves a bit more than necessary, but we were young and sweets are delicious at all ages. Regardless my mom had finally had enough of us taking advantage of our snack privileges, and she explained that it was rude for us to always ask Grandma for a snack and that we were no longer allowed to do so. If Grandma happened to offer then we could say yes as long as we remembered to say thank you.
You might think that this would put a damper on visits to our grandparents, but remember they still had that awesome basement where we were always building forts. And, as the eldest brother, I knew I had to do something. While I don’t remember coming up with the plan I do recall the actual execution just fine. The next time we headed over my mom reminded us all in the car that we weren’t allowed to ask for snacks. We all promised that we wouldn’t, but just to be safe my mom even made us lunch right before we left.
We walked into their house and as my grandma and mom were talking to each I turned to my mom and said in cutest, most-innocent sounding 7-year-old voice I could muster “Mom, when are we going to have lunch!? I’m SOOO hungry!”
I immediately received the Look of Death™ from my mom, but before she could say anything Grandma jumped in and said “Oh don’t worry about that, go and get yourself a snack.”
The triumphant grin on my face was nicely juxtaposed with the frown on my mom’s face and her stern gaze down at her manipulative child. I wish my mom were still here so that I could ask her what she remembers about the whole incident; it’s funny now, but I wonder how she felt back then? If I had to guess I’d say that she was somewhat disgusted with me for being so conniving. But at the same time she was probably also a little bit proud that I was able to find such an eloquent workaround. Had she not given away the secret that exposed by conned innocence, I would probably still be able to use the same stunt today. But of course the first thing she did was explain to my grandma that she had just been duped. I want to say that we got the snack anyway but can’t remember for sure.
My grandma LOVES to bring up this story ALL the time. And every time I re-tell it we all get a good laugh out of it. A few weeks ago we had a family reunion and of course this came up. I relish the opportunity to spin a good yarn, and so of course I make sure to bring everyone into the story and at the end the entire end of our table is rolling over in fits of laughter. A few nights later I stopped by my grandparents house to share stories and pictures about Asia and my grandma said to me “Boy the rest of the people at that reunion thought we were all crazy, but I tell you we had a great time!”
Plus it gets even better: I had happened to have a clementine in my coat pocket, so while I was there I casually pulled it out and started peeling it. I offered them each a piece which then lead to my grandpa mentioning that if I opened one of their far cupboards that on the second shelf they had a bunch of snacks. We all laughed; but I still grabbed a cookie!
Hopefully the original story made you chuckle too in which case I think Kahneman has some more research to do because now my experience has become our experience. And hopefully you too will be able to inspire a few laughs when you share it.
Is my experience unique? Do you have family members that seem to focus on a few key stories too?