I started crying while doing the dishes last week. Domestic weeping of this kind used to be rarer for me before the Trump election, but I am afraid it is all too common now since, like everyone else, I listen to the news while I do housework.
In this case, for once, it was happy tears, though I didn’t quite understand them at first. I was listening to the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, which is about psychology and social science. The episode was about regrets. Host Shankar Vedantam was interviewing psychologist Amy Summerville from he Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio about her own lifehacks to avoid regret.
VEDANTAM: I understand you got married about a year ago. And you applied some of your own research on regret when it came to choosing a wedding dress.
SUMMERVILLE: I did. So I actually wasn’t applying my own research. I applied to work by Sheena Iyengar on the phenomenon of choice overload as well as work by Barry Schwartz and colleagues about the idea of maximizing versus satisficing as strategies for decisions – maximizing being the idea that you want to pick the best of all possible alternatives and satisficing being the idea that you’re going to pick something that meets all of your standards but may or may not be the absolute best.
So when I was wedding dress shopping, I went to a couple of stores. I tried on five or 10 dresses at each one. And I found a dress that I absolutely loved and was in my price range. And I realized that what the research told me was I would never be happier than I was at that moment – that if I kept dress shopping, I was going to wind up feeling overwhelmed. You know, I could find a hundred different lace sheaths with a V-neck in ivory, and I would wind up feeling confused about what are the differences between these, and that the very act of trying to get the absolute best would mean that I could never really be sure if I’d done it. Whereas, if I adopted a satisficing strategy, I could be sure I’m in a dress that looks beautiful on me and is in my price range, and I should just buy it and be done. And so that’s how I chose my wedding dress.
By this point I was near tears. But why? I am personally not very sentimental about weddings or wedding dresses. I eloped in a sundress from Target. And the concept of choice overload, while fascinating, wasn’t particularly emotionally resonant for me.
Then the penny dropped. What got me about this moment was that this successful, professional woman was using such a traditionally feminine example from her own life—and completely without apology. There was no “well this is silly but” or “this can even be applied to something as frivolous as dress shopping!” from her or Vedantam. Both of them treated shopping for a wedding dress as a normal, serious part of life.
So often successful women use the tactic of staying away from traditionally feminine subjects as a way to establish that they are as serious as men. I’ve done this a lot myself (note that, for instance, I could not stop myself from bragging that I didn’t have a fancy wedding). I don’t think we should blame women for doing this; the culture has made it very difficult not to, from “cool girls” in their twenties to young professionals trying to act like they are basically dudes without ties. When I worked as a secretary in a academic department many years ago, one pregnant professor would come into the administration offices and rest on a couch with her feet up; she didn’t want the students and lab techs she supervised to see her lie down.
But there is some hope that some day we women will not have to do this anymore–that we can be as feminine as we want to be without being seen as silly. (And, of course, as masculine as we want to be without being seen as perverse or threatening.) So it was moving for me to hear Summerville be so straightforward and unapologetic about her story. And it really got me when the host wrapped it up without any kind of cheap gag about women and shopping or bridezillas or anything at all to suggest that shopping for a wedding dress was something that an associate professor of psychology should be ashamed of.
VEDANTAM: So for all your kids who think that research has no benefit in people’s lives, that’s a great example.
I put down my soapy mug and cried like a girl.