GPD Lexicon: Proxy Preference

It’s been a little while since I added anything to the GPD Lexicon, but I got inspired this week by a Washington Post article on American living situations. It covered a Gallup Poll that asked people an interesting question:

“If you could live anywhere you wished, where would you prefer to live — in a
big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town, or rural area?”

The results were then compared to where people actually live, to give the following graph:

Now when I saw this I had a few thoughts:

  1. I wonder if everyone actually knew what the definition of each of those was when they answered.
  2. I wonder if this is really what people want.

The first was driven by my confusion over whether the town I grew up in would be considered a town or a “small city suburb”.

The second thought was driven by my deep suspicion that almost 30% of the US actually wanted to live in rural areas, whereas only half that number actually live in one. While I have no doubt that many people actually do want to live in rural areas, it seems like for at least some people that might be a bit of a proxy for something else. For example, one of the most common reason for moving away from rural areas is to find work elsewhere. Did saying you wanted to live in a rural area represent (for some people) a desire to not have to work or to be able to work less? A desire to not have economic factors influence where you live?

To test this theory, I decided to ask a few early to mid 20s folks at my office where they would live if they could live anywhere. All of them currently live in the city, but all gave different answers.  This matched the Gallup poll findings, where 29% of 18-29 year olds were living in cities, but only 17% said they wanted to. As they put it:

“One of the most interesting contrasts emerges in reference to big-city suburbs. The desire to live in such an area is much higher among 18- to 29-year-olds than the percentage of this age group who actually live there. (As reviewed above, 18- to 29-year-olds are considerably more likely to want to live in a big-city suburb than in a big city per se.)”

Given this, it seems like if I asked any of my young coworkers if they wanted to rent a room from me in my large city suburb home, they’d say yes. And yet I doubt they actually would. When they were answering,  almost none of them were talking about their life as it currently stands, but more what they hope their life could be. They wanted to get married, have kids, live somewhere smaller or in the suburbs. Their vision of living in the suburbs isn’t just the suburbs, it’s owning their own home, maybe having a partner, a good job, and/or kids. They don’t want a room in my house. They want their own house, and a life that meets some version of what they call success.

I think this is a version of what economists call a “revealed preference“, where you can tell what people really want by what they actually buy. In this version though, people are using their answers to one question to express other desires that are not part of the question. In other words this:

Proxy Preference: A preference or answer given on a survey that reflects a larger set of wants or needs not reflected in the question.

An example: Some time ago, I saw a person claiming that women should never plan to return to the workforce after having kids, because all women really wanted to work part time. To prove this, she had pointed to a survey question that asked women “if money were not a concern, what would your ideal work set up be?”. Unsurprisingly, many women said they’d want to work part time. I can’t find it now, but that question always seemed unfair to me. Of course lots of people would drop their hours if they had no money concerns! While many of us are lucky enough to like a lot of what we do, most of us are ultimately working for money.

A second example: I once had a pastor mention in a sermon that as a high schooler he and his classmates had been asked if they would rather be rich, famous, very beautiful or happy. According to his story, he was one of the only people who picked “happy”. When he asked his classmates why they’d picked the other things, they all replied that if they had those things they would be happy. It wasn’t that they didn’t want happiness, it was that they believed that wealth, fame and beauty actually led directly to happiness.

Again, I don’t think everyone who says they want to live in a rural area only means they want financial security or a slower pace of life, but I suspect they might. It would be interesting to narrow the question a bit to see what kind of answers you’d get. Phrasing it “if money were no object, where would you prefer to live today?” might reveal some interesting answers. Maybe ask a follow up question about “where would you want to live in 5 or 10 years?”, which might reveal how much of the answer had something to do with life goals.

In the meantime though, it’s good to remember that when a  large number of people say they’d prefer to do something other than what they are actually doing, thinking about the reasons for the discrepancy can be revealing.

6 thoughts on “GPD Lexicon: Proxy Preference

  1. Great new term. The town you grew up in was a small town when your mother grew up there and has become at least 50% small city suburb by now. It still has a fair bit of rurality to it, and not just your neigborhood. Pinardville should perhaps be considered part of the city itself at this point. So your perception is accurate – it is unclear what it is.

    We thought we wanted to live in a rural setting when we were young, but not so much now. I think it will be fun to reflect whether this was a proxy preference on out part.

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  2. One of my cousins and I used to laugh about yearning for yesterdays. We decided that we didn’t want to live in the 1920s, we just wanted the clothes. I think that yearning for a simpler life and defining that as rural is somewhat the same. The idealized rural life never existed any more than the idealized city life did.

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    • Ha! Yes, everyone thinks the middle ages might be interesting, though of course we all assume we’d be royalty 🙂 No one wants to be a peasant, or forced into a political marriage, or to never shower.

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    • And what was her answer? And yes, that was much of what I was thinking of. Lots of people like the idea of space and distance, but I’ve found most people also don’t like driving very far to get things.

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      • Tracy thought we were seeking purity, holiness, in a simple life. To be independent from all the trappings of the city was to be freed just a bit from The World. It was a big idea in evangelical circles at that time, with lots of people going into communes, or at least “community.”

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