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Financial Lessons From Television Fiction: House

This article was written by in Personal Finance. 4 comments.

I have to admit there are are two or three television shows I enjoy watching each week. House is one of those shows. I’m drawn to this show for several reasons. I’m a fan of Hugh Laurie from his Blackadder days, and his American accent is usually very convincing. Also, the show takes place in a fictional hospital all but right in my backyard. The aerial shots in the opening credits are accurately Princeton University and its immediate vicinity. One episode even featured a character carrying a unique and immediately identifiable shopping bag from the vinyl heaven known as Princeton Record Exchange, and other local New Jersey references abound.

Hugh Laurie, House, M.D.Dr. Gregory House, while a bit of a jerk, doesn’t have much to teach about personal finance. Despite what must be a very healthy salary for being a sought-after doctor, he is constantly “borrowing” money from the Watson to his Holmes, Dr. James Wilson. The money he does have is blown on prostitutes, drugs, the racetrack, and poker. Any lessons in money management from the show must come peripherally. Here are a few based on the overarching themes of the series throughout its first three seasons.

You can’t always get what you want. House has quoted “the philosopher Jagger,” and the famous Rolling Stones song of the same name was used incidentally several times throughout the first season. House doesn’t get what he wants, whether it’s relief from his physiological and/or psychological pain or a reinvented relationship with his ex-wife. His medical lackeys don’t get what they desire, either. Chase wants Cameron to return his feelings. Foreman wants a new job and to believe he is not similar in character to House. In fact, the show is all about frustration.

It’s easy to focus on *wants* rather than *needs.* Wants are usually more interesting, more appealing. Problems arise when these wants are beyond reach. I want to have a beautiful, large house when my lease is up at the end of June. But if I have my mind set on this goal, I will definitely disappointed when July comes and I still haven’t found something that fits those qualifications as well as being affordable. In situations like this, it’s a good idea to take a mental inventory to determine my needs, separate them from my wants, and focus on only what’s necessary for now. It’s healthy to have wants. Wants are the “stretch goals” that may be attainable down the road. But if you’re hanging your well-being on their realization, you’re asking for disappointment.

Everybody lies. One of House’s philosophies is never to trust what his patients tell him, only what their symptoms reveal. He has a knack for reading between the lines and finding the truth, even if it takes almost three full acts. The idea that “things are never what they seem” or “reality is wrong” is a central theme to the show. (You can even get the “Everybody Lies” tee shirt and support the National Alliance on Mental Illness.)

This lesson is very simple to relate to the personal finance industry. Salespeople want your business and want to make their commissions. Yes, some are looking out for their customers’ best interest, but it pays to be skeptical of what brokers and insurance agents try to sell. Recently, Maryanne’s 86-year-old father was sold a variable annuity, which was most likely not the best way to manage his money… but it’s a lucrative deal for the bank.

Statistics lie. Take a look at survivorship bias. You’ve probably heard someone tell you that starting a business is one of the best ways to become “rich,” because a high percentage business owners are rich. This statistic neglects the large number of businesses that no longer exist despite the best efforts and passions of the former owners. On a more basic level, How to Lie and Cheat With Statistics is an overview of meaningless statistics designed for young students. But many adults I speak with every day don’t grasp — or perhaps they willfully ignore because it’s easier than thinking — the concepts of number manipulation and how easy it is to be mislead.

Here is a perfect example I remember from a certain political debate, though the specific numbers have escaped my mind. Politician A, an incumbent, says, “We have a strong economy. Under my watch we added 500,000 new jobs.” But what does 500,000 new jobs really mean? If during the politician’s watch, the economy lost 750,000 old jobs and then gained 500,000 new jobs, you can’t say Politician A was lying, but it is a highly misleading statement that doesn’t really reflect the true nature of the economy. Looking at the total using simple arithmetic, there were actually 250,000 net jobs lost.

These are just a few of the lessons that one can mine from House. There are very few shows I try to watch each week, and this is one.

Published or updated May 17, 2007.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I love House! His cynical zingers just keep coming for the whole hour.

Never thought to apply to finances, but your “everybody lies” comment rings true. I think that even people who don’t know they are lying (family/friends) can often mislead you because they have been lied to or mislead themselves. You really need to do your OWN research for your own decisions and investments.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Thanks for the link on How to Lie and Cheat with Statistics–very informative. I’ve often wished publishers would share more about how they came up with their figures.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

Flexo, thanks for highlighting survivorship bias. It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine when people talk about the Millionaire Next Door and mutual funds. Similarly, just because there is a correlation between two things doesn’t mean one is causal of the other.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I’ve always interpeted that when someone says that “X new jobs were added” the old ones were retained and this is the net gain. It’s a bad interpetation, now that I think about it. Then again, if the old jobs were buggy whip makers and the new jobs were car makers (and this was the early 20th century), you’d probably be fine with that politician. So it’s not necessarily about that politician, but about the natural progress of things.

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