Closing Doors that seem like Opportunities

A professor of behavioral economics asked hundreds of MIT students to play a computer game that paid cash for finding symbols of money behind three doors. Each time the students clicked on an open a door, they earned a little money.

But there was a catch: The amount was different behind each door-and the amount kept changing. The player could switch rooms and search for higher payoffs, but for each switch, he or she used an extra click just to open the new door. Each player only had a limited number of clicks. The best strategy was to stay in the room offering the highest rewards.

But did the students do that? No. The doors to the unclicked rooms would start shrinking and eventually disappear.  Instead of ignoring those disappearing doors and just paying attention to the doors that paid off, students kept switching back and forth, clicking on the doors that appeared to be disappearing, even though it wasn’t in their own best interest.

Irrational? Yes. Predictable? Yes.

The students thought they were keeping their options open. Even when the game was set up so that players could make a door reappear whenever they wanted, they still kept frantically trying to prevent any door from vanishing. They wasted time, refusing to let go because of the pain of watching a door close and seeing an option disappear.

We are willing to pay a price to avoid feeling a particular emotional such as losing an opportunity, according to Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. His advice? Find ways to avoid overbooking our lives by letting a few things fall off our plates. Cancel projects. Give away ideas to colleagues. Resign from committees. Rethink hobbies. Let a few doors close.

Stephen Goforth