Regretting your Choices

The choices we make are statements to the world about who we are. When all you could do was buy Lee’s or Levi’s, the jeans you bought were not a statement to the world about who you are because there wasn’t enough variety in the jeans you bought to capture the variety of human selves. When there are 2,000 kinds of jeans, or 20,000 kinds of jeans, well, now all of a sudden it is a statement to the world about who you are because there’s so much variety out there. This is true of jeans. It’s true of drinks. It’s true of music videos. It’s true of movies. That makes even trivial decisions seem important, and when that happens, people want the best. We’ve got a bunch of studies that show that large choice sets induce people to regard the choices they make as statements about the self, and that, in turn, induces them to raise their standards.If there are 200, and you buy a pair of jeans that don’t fit you as well as you hoped, now it’s hard to avoid blaming yourself. The only way to avoid regretting a decision is not making it, so I think a lot of the reason people don’t pull the trigger is that they’re so worried that when they do pull the trigger, they’ll regret a choice they made.

Barry Schwartz quoted in Vox

Seeking the Best is a Trap

We have this sense that there is an objective best, and in virtually no area of life is that true. It’s not even that, “Well, there’s the best for me, and then there’s the best for you.” It isn’t even clear that there is a best for me. There’s a whole set of things that are probably more or less equivalent.

If you have this mindset that says, “I have to get the best,” it’s so hard to figure out what that is that you end up looking in panic around you at what other people are choosing as a way to help you figure out what is the best. I think it’s partly because they are struggling to define the best, and they can’t do it on their own, so they’re madly checking out other people’s decisions as a way of figuring out what really is the best. It’s extremely destructive.  

Barry Schwartz quoted in Vox

The green fig tree

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Trying New Things Is So Hard to Do

When I think of my favorite restaurants, the ones I have visited many times, it is striking how few of the menu items I have tried. And when I think of all the lunch places near my workplace, I realize that I keep going to the same places again and again.

Habits are powerful. We persist with many of them because we tend to give undue emphasis to the present. Trying something new can be painful: I might not like what I get and must forgo something I already enjoy. That cost is immediate, while any benefits — even if they are large — will be enjoyed in a future that feels abstract and distant. Yes, I want to know what else my favorite restaurant does well, but today I just want my favorite dish.

Overconfidence also holds us back. I am unduly certain in my guesses of what the alternatives will be like, even though I haven’t tried them.

Many so-called choices are not really choices at all. Walking down the supermarket aisle. I act without thinking.

Experimentation is an act of humility, an acknowledgment that there is simply no way of knowing without trying something different.

Understanding that truth is a first step, but it is important to act on it. 

Sendhil Mullainathan writing in the New York Times

why Facebook survived

While Facebook was just getting on its feet in 2004, a similar social network called Campus Network (or CU Community) was ahead and more advanced. Slate explains why only one survived.

Why did Facebook succeed where Campus Network failed? The simplest explanation is, well, its simplicity. Yes, Campus Network had advanced features that Facebook was missing. While Campus Network blitzed first-time users right away, Facebook updated its features incrementally. Facebook respected the Web's learning curve.

Campus Network did too much too soon. Neither site, of course, can claim to be the first social network—Friendster and MySpace already had large followings in 2003. But both Facebook and Campus Network had the crucial insight that overlaying a virtual community on top of an existing community—a college campus—would cement users' trust and loyalty. Campus Network figured it out first. Facebook just executed it better.

While people want to make their own choices, research shows too many options creates problems. We become overwhelmed. There is no substitute for simplicity and clarity. Whether on purpose or by accident, Facebook was built from the perspective of looking at what users would do with the site rather than building to show off what its creators could do. One approach shows respect for the audience.

Stephen Goforth

Throwing Good Money after Bad

Imagine a company that has already spent $50 million on a project. The project is now behind schedule and the forecasts of its ultimate returns are less favorable than at the initial planning stage. An additional investment of $60 million is required to give the project a chance. An alternative proposal is to invest the same amount in a new project that currently looks likely to bring higher returns. What will the company do? All too often a company afflicted by sunk costs drives into the blizzard, throwing good money after bad rather than accepting the humiliation of closing the account of a costly failure.

(This) fallacy keeps people for too long in poor jobs, unhappy marriages, and unpromising research projects. I have often observed young scientists struggling to salvage a doomed project when they would be better advised to drop it and start a new one. Fortunately, research suggests that at least in some contexts the fallacy can be overcome. (It) is taught as a mistake in both economics and business courses, apparently to good effect: there is evidence that graduate students in these fields are more willing than others to walk away from a failing project.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

a better guide to future success

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer argues that much of our behaviour is based on deceptively sophisticated rules-of-thumb, or “heuristics”. A robot programmed to chase and catch a ball would need to compute a series of complex differential equations to track the ball’s trajectory. But baseball players do so by instinctively following simple rules: run in the right general direction, and adjust your speed to keep a constant angle between eye and ball.

To make good decisions in a complex world, Gigerenzer says, you have to be skilled at ignoring information. He found that a portfolio of stocks picked by people he interviewed in the street did better than those chosen by experts. The pedestrians were using the “recognition heuristic”: they picked companies they’d heard of, which was a better guide to future success than any analysis of price-earning ratios.

Ian Leslie writing in The Economist

Behind Door #3

Remember the old television show Let’s Make a Deal? Monty Hall would given contestants, typically dressed in outrageous costumes, a choice of three doors. The contestant would receive whatever was behind the door they selected. One of the doors had a great prize behind it. Pick that door and you get a valuable gift like a car or a vacation. But behind the other two doors were gag gifts. It might be a rooster or a lifetime supply of paper clips.

There was always one extra twist to the show: Once you pick a door, before revealing what was behind it, Monty would do you the favor of opening one of the remaining two doors and show one of the gag gifts. At that point, he'd let you switch doors if you wanted to do so. You could stick with your original choice as well.

What's the right move? Our instinct tells us to to stick to our guns. But you should go against that instinct and switch. Why? The chances you’ve picked the wrong door is two-out-of-three. But with only two doors left, your odds of getting the great prize goes up to 50-50. 

But there’s more afoot here than just winning a prize on a TV game show.

Economist M. Keith Chen says this phenomenon has been overlooked in some of the most famous psychology experiments. He claims The Monty Hall Problem shows there's a logical flaw in the idea of choice rationalization. Choice rationalization is the idea that once we reject something, we tell ourselves we never liked the one we rejected anyway. Psychologists say we do this because it spares us the pain of thinking we made the wrong choice. Chen believes it’s not the act of picking that makes people suddenly prefer one over the other. He claims the preference was there all along. It's just that the preference was so slight it was not initially obvious until other possibilities are cleared out. You can read his own explanation here.

Stephen Goforth

Risk Management

When we say that someone has fallen on bad luck, we relieve that person of any responsibility for what has happened. When we say that someone has had good luck, we deny that person credit for the effort that might have led to the happy outcome. But how sure can we be? Was it fate or choice that decided the outcome?

Until we can distinguish between an event that is truly random and an event that is the result of cause and effect, we will never know whether what we see is what we’ll get, nor how we got what we got.

When we take a risk, we are betting on an outcome that will result from a decision we have made, though we do not know for certain what the outcome will be. The essence of risk management lies in maximizing the areas where we have some control over the outcome while minimizing the areas where we have absolutely no control over the outcome and the linkage between effect and cause is hidden from us.

Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods

Build yourself a great story

How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologize?

Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

When it's tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made.

In the end, we are our choices.

Build yourself a great story.

Jeff Bezos, speaking to the Princeton Class of 2010 (watch the video here)

embracing the life that's been forced upon you

From the beginning you are in the victim of circumstances. You're born, kicking and screaming, into an unknown family. As a child, you soak up influences that mold your mind in certain ways. When you finally get a driver’s license and move out of the house, you think, you’re free—but you marry someone who looks like your mother and drinks like your father. By the time you figure out who you are or what you want, a life has already been forced upon you. But it’s never too late to change. Although you can’t begin again from scratch, you can make a splendid ragout from the mishmash of damaged goods in your cupboard.

I choose how to live a life I didn’t choose.

Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflications

The Less Traveled Road

Briers below and limbs above. Avoiding them slows your walk. There's a log to step across. Here's a hole to avoid. Yet with your every step you come closer to seeing wonders few will know. The question is: Will getting past those obstacles below and above really be worth the surprising revelations you'll encounter? Choosing to walk the less traveled road may mean periods of intense loneliness and nagging doubt. There is the path of comfort and conformity and the path of adventure and self-definition. Your choice. 

Stephen Goforth

Decoys

We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly.

High-priced entrees on a menu boosts revenue for a restaurant – even if no one buys them. Why? Because even though people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish. Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers into ordering the second most expensive choice (which can be cleverly engineered to deliver to higher profit margin).

Suppose you’re shopping for a house in a new town. Your real estate agent guides you to three houses, all of which interest you. One of them is a contemporary, and two are colonials. All three cost about the same; they are all equally desirable; and the only difference is that on of the colonials the “decoy”) needs a new roof and the owner has knocked a few thousand dollars off the price to cover the additional expense.

So which one do you choice?

The chances are good that you will not choose the contemporary and you will not choose the colonial that needs the new roof, but you will choose the other colonial. Why? Here the rationale (which is actually quite irrational). We like to make decisions based on comparison. In the case of the three houses, we don’t know that much about the contemporary (we don’t have another house to compare it with). So that house goes on the sidelines. But we know that one of the colonials is better than the other one. That is, the colonial with the good roof is better than the one with the bad roof. Therefore, we will reason that it better overall and go for the colonial with the good roof, spurning the contemporary and the colonial that needs a new roof.

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational

Choosing Prison

Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life. The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decision, the more our heart softens – or better perhaps, comes alive.

Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable rather than the desirable action. On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.

Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man

driven to obligation

When we are locked into imperative thinking, we hold our absolute conviction so tightly that we have little or no recognition of our choice to say no! Obligation becomes our driving force. Relationships with other people and our responsibilities to them then become matters of dread, resentment, guilt.

Our need for a structured, orderly life can be so powerful that we refuse to make allowances for choices. To us, circumstances are either black or white. Once we settle upon a conviction or preference, we feel rigidly obligated to abide by it, with little variation.

Imperative people are almost afraid to allow for the luxury of choices. We feel the need to minimize our risks by sticking to the rules that we have made for ourselves.

Les Carter, Imperative People: Those Who Must Be in Control

No Retreat

Dan Ariely tells the story of the Chinese general who decided to get his troops focused on moving forward by burning their ships after they disembarked. The radical “no retreat” move was successful and offers a lesson in social science research. It’s fleshed out in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational.

The MIT prof of behavioral economics says we keep too many options open, afraid we’ll miss something. While many of our decisions are irrational, even against our best interest, Ariely says these moves tend to happen in predictable patterns and his ingeniously designed experiments prove his point. For instance, students who participated in a series of trials he conducted couldn’t bring themselves to let go of options, even when they did not lose anything by doing so.

Stephen Goforth

When resting means death

Two climbers died in a weekend snowstorm on Mount Rainier a few years ago. The men carried warm clothes, sleeping bags, tents and other items with them. They had everything they needed to save their lives. But instead of using what they had brought with them to survive, they first sat down to rest.. and died of exposure.

The climb can be tough. In those desperate moments when exhaustion overwhelms us, we have to choose to go beyond what we think we can do. Otherwise, no amount of preparation can save us.

Stephen Goforth

little decisions

Each person has to rise to the unique challenges presented to him or her. Sometimes, you don't know who's prepared for life's game until the whistle blows. Then, all is revealed. But if we look carefully, we can see there are hints beforehand letting you "read" the players. We have a thousand little decisions to make each day that turn us into who we are. Those small decisions reveal slices of our souls. I'm not always the person who picks up a piece of litter or pauses to listen to someone who's hurting, or sets boundaries in the right places--but I want to be. And I want to understand which seemingly insignificant decisions, if I choose wisely, will prepare me for success in the big game. You might say that I know this to be true: The choices I make, make me.

Stephen Goforth

Anchoring

Referees favour home teams in judgment calls, particularly those that happen at a crucial stage in a game. If a batter chooses not to swing at a baseball pitch, the pitch is more likely to be called a strike if the home team is pitching. This tendency is most extreme in close games. In soccer, referees are more likely to award penalties to the home team, hand out fewer punishments for offences to home players.

Are referees deliberately biased? The authors (of Scorecasting) think not. Instead, they blame the fact that referees, like the rest of us, tend subconsciously to rely on crowdsourcing, picking up on the mood of the crowd when making their decision. “Anchoring” is the name economists give to people’s tendency to be unduly influenced by outside suggestion. Take away the crowd and the home bias shrinks, as it did a few years back when 21 Italian soccer matches were played without supporters following incidents of crowd violence. In these games the home bias declined by 23% on fouls called, by 26% for yellow cards and by a remarkable 70% for red cards, which remove a player from the game and have a particularly big impact on the result.

From The Referee's an Anchor in The Economist