Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Perils of Time Inconsistency: Kitty Edition

When my girlfriend’s parents visited this summer and started feeding two stray cats on my back porch, I knew I was in trouble. Soon we were buying mouse-shaped toys and a laser pointer to spend our time outside in the evenings playing with our new furry friends. Most people would have probably had only warm and fuzzy thoughts while dangling the mouse-on-a-string. But, as you already know, we here at TPS are not most people. Surveying the scene, I couldn’t help but think of the two-word phrase that scares me more than any other: time inconsistency.

We both preferred the cats stay outside. They are a lot of fun—we like playing with them. But neither Astrid nor I were interested in trading the fur-free couch and scratch-free dining table for cat-filled accommodations—especially since it was so nice outside and most of the playing-with-them benefits were already accruing. (Yeah, yeah. We are heartless utility maximizers. Blah, blah, blah.) However, I was pretty confident that Astrid would change her tune as the weather became less pleasant. There is absolutely no way she would be able to look into those soft but-I’m-so-cold eyes day after day without eventually giving in. (I know: this means I am more heartless than she is. No surprise there.) And since dU(Will)/dU(Astrid) > 0, I would naturally want to reduce her discomfort by agreeing to take them in.

I didn’t know exactly how long it would take. But I was confident that, if not sooner, snowy paws would put those cats indoors. We could not credibly commit to keep them outside forever. So what should we do?

If it were merely a matter of putting out food a few times a day and playing catch-the-mouse, it would not have mattered when we brought them in. We were already doing those things anyway. But we needed also to consider the litter box training. I’m no cat expert, but I’d imagine—like most things—training is more easily accomplished early before bad habits set in. So despite our preferences to keep them outside, our inability to credibly commit to this strategy forever and the gains from training early meant that we should just bring them inside while it was still nice and sunny.

But—like so many in time inconsistent situations—we persuaded ourselves that we would be able to commit. “It’s fine. They are wild animals,” I told myself. “They’ve been surviving for thousands of years outside.”

Fortunately for us, it got cold relatively early this year.


ZW said...

If it raises your utility any, remember that cats are an invasive species: they wreak havoc on native wildlife. Bringing cats indoors probably provides more social benefits than recycling for your entire lifetime.

Will Luther said...

Thanks for the factoid. I didn't know that.

I have no doubt that they will soon dominate their new habitat, though.