Elster's World

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Foil Theory

I know someone who makes terrible decions. I mean realy, truly, deeply terrible decisions about how to live her/his life. Relationships, opportunities, etc.; you name it, he/she seems to pick the dead wrong approach 9 out of 10 times. That's a 90% Wrong Rate for you non-math majors.

After hearing a story about a recent poor life choice by this person, it got me thinking. Why do people make poor choices? Who is making poor choices more often and why? Is it intelligence? Is it an inability to think critically on an issue? Certainly these things all play a part, but there seems to be more to it. Many smart people make dumb choices. So why?

And from this grew Elster's Foil Theory.

Now, I fully admit to not being particularly learned, so if this is some famous psychological theory, well I didn't steal it - I'm just not a very original thinker. With that disclaimer out of the way, onto the theory.

The Foil Theory is simple. When making decisions of any type, but especially when making major decisons, it is very helpful for a person to have a foil - that person or persons who can examine your idea from an impartial distance and let you know if it makes sense or it you are making a horrible mistake. Someone to say to you "um, I think that maybe sleeping with that hooker with the red blotches on her face and neck isn't a very good idea".

You get my point. Sometimes a person is too close to an issue to see it clearly from both sides. That's when mistakes get made. That's where the foil comes in.

When you are a kid, your foils are your parents. They guide you and help you make (hopefully)smart decisions. As you get older and stop listening to your parents, your friends become your foils (and this is the reason that it's important to surround yourself with good, smart and trustworthy friends - as if you needed a reason). Eventually, your spouse/partner becomes your foil.

In fact and upon further review, part of finding your "soul mate" is finding that person with whom you have a symbiotic foil relationship with. For example, in my house the missus makes sure my tie matches my suit (foils can help with the small stuff too).

Foils are key to our decision making process. How often we regret making uninformed, spur of the moment decisons versus decisons that were properly contemplated? The truth is I don't know, but if I had to guess, it makes sense to say that the former is more regretted.

It also brings up an interesting issue. When people get married later in life, we often admonish their decisons and cal them "too set in their ways". Well, isn't that the same thing as saying they lack foil? A 40 year old (wo)man isn't going to listen to their parents, their friends are married and out of the day to day of their lives, and they don't have the partner/spouse foil. Thus, they begin to make all of their decisions on their own - without the voice of reason telling them that x, y or z may not be such a good idea.

Of course, older, unmarried people can have foils too. I'm not suggesting otherwise. You can find your foil in many places, not necessarily in the Big Three (parents, friends and spouses). I do not mean to say that the Big Three is all inclusive. But those are certaily the most common.

So...the Foil Theory. I kind of like it.


  • Alrgiht, your back pandering to the girls. I respect that.

    The fallacy in your theory is that "the foils" will usually bring their own preconceptions to the table.

    For example, when I was living in the UWS, I got clearly different sets of perspectives from (i) my parents; (ii) my married friends and (iii) my single friends, especially those on the UWS. Ultimately (iii) usually were the ones I listened to (even if totally subconciously), because those were the people I was most connected to.

    Inevitably people are most influenced by those in their main peer group, who may or may not provide proper counsel. When it comes to things like relationships, careers, etc., different people - and I mean well-intentioned people - often will have totally different ideas about what's right.

    So while your idea probably works when it comes to people who continually mess up no-brainer decisions, when it comes to the nuanced decisions that reqiuire a pro/con and risk/reward balance, I don't know that anyone can make decisions for us.

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 1:17 PM  

  • Of course not - at the end of the day, everyone must decide waht is best for them. And yes, surely no matter how much the foil attempts to be an impartial player, they still have their own "slant" on everything, no question. Stil, there is an inherent value in talking issues out with another person - whether you end up taking or listening to their opinion or not.

    Let me give you a sports analogy. When you are trying to decide if it's a good idea to trade David Wright for three 18 year old prospects. You are tantalized by the what ifs. They you ask your friend if he thniks it's a good idea. All of a sudden you have put it into words. "Wait a minute, I'm trading David Fraking Wright for three unproven prospects??? What the hell was I thinking???"

    So even verbalizing with your foil can be helpful. You are right, I have added that to my theory. Even a crappy foil is better than no foil at all.

    By Blogger Elster, at 1:36 PM  

  • Steve Phillips repeatedly tried to trade Wright when Wright was in the minors. He was listening to fans like you who said: "Wait a minute, I'm not trading unproven prospect David Wright? What the heck was I thinking?"

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 2:00 PM  

  • I'm not following. Are you attacking my foil argument or my argument that the majority of all Met prospects are completely overhyped?

    By Blogger Elster, at 2:33 PM  

  • Neither - but closer to the latter.

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 4:34 PM  

  • BTW,

    Why are you still wearing suits and ties?

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 4:35 PM  

  • I'm forced to wear suits to work every day. First suit job in 89 years. also, there's shabbos....

    By Anonymous elster, at 5:06 PM  

  • I did not know that law firms still require suits.

    Do you think G-d cares if you wear a tie on shabbos? I'm hoping not.

    By Blogger Joe Schick, at 5:54 PM  

  • I wear one shabbos morning, but rarely fri night or shabbos afternoon. I'm assuming not.

    By Anonymous elster, at 10:06 PM  

  • And by the way- I have no female readers.

    By Anonymous elster, at 9:09 AM  

  • You do have female readers. We just don't comment very often. I hate sports, and don't check your blog as often, because of the fact.

    By Blogger Sara with NO H, at 11:03 PM  

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