Saying “No,” or the Irrational Bounds of Choice, or…

They say that summer is a time of lethargy, for the “sun is making me numb,” the “it’s too hot to think” and “I’m 15% French and should have August off” syndrome. “They” didn’t say anything, rather, in this case, since I am “they” and felt like legitimizing my anecdotal generalization with an even broader term socially accepted everywhere by those who fear revealing ignorance — however poorly displaced. “They” is a topic for another time, though, one which focuses on American history textbooks and Rush Limbaugh and commercials between the hours of 11am and 3pm. And maybe your mother.

The original point of that digression is probably revealed in the digression itself, or in the almost comedic set-up of “you think this” but really “that.” Essentially, I am trying to cover up the fact that I promised myself I would post 3 times per week, chuckled a sigh of not me when friends warned that they had once started a blog that fizzled into summer’s lethargy, allowed a weekly post rule to take hold and now it has been 3 weeks and summer is over. And dogs can’t eat blogs.

Or can they?

Where have all the excuses gone?

But rather than craft excuses which I might one day myself believe like the chronic liar who doesn’t remember what actually happened last Saturday night since her fictive rendition was more believable (and exciting to retell) than the reality, I thought I would digress on another front — namely choice, or the simultaneous lack and abundance thereof.

Traditionally and according to the laws of nature, otherwise (formerly) known as rational economic theory, we make calculated decisions based on the costs and benefits of a given choice, and ultimately choose the path which yield us the largest benefit, or utility. At a basic level, $2 is better than $1 which is better than $0. Right? Wrong, indicates Dan Ariely in his book, Predictably Irrational. Ariely makes the point in his must-read deconstruction of classical economic theory that not only are humans irrational in our decision-making process as we probably realized by now (hopefully), but also we are able to consistently predict how and when and why we will make those irrational decisions at the individual and collective levels. Regardless of your interest in economics, I just have to pause to say, purchase this book immediately. It served as my interim bible / self-help guide to understanding all the horrible decisions I make on a regular, predictable basis and actually made me feel a bit better to know I was not the only one. Better than Freakonomics and Tipping Point by 10 Magnolia cupcakes and 3 episodes of True Blood. Really…

Ariely uses a combination of scientific studies and hilarious anecdotes to weave the fortunately / unfortunately true tale of our inability to reason when we need to the most, particularly due to context we are unable or unwilling to discern. He explain why Sweden and Denmark, despite their similar cultures, have stark differences in their organ donation rates, why$0 is better than $2 if the right social norms are in place, why you will order the worst beer on the menu despite your sincere preference otherwise, and how stereotypes not only influence our perception of others but subconsciously change the way we perceive ourselves.

Without giving too much away, I will note that one of my favorite chapters discusses the impact of emotions on our decisions, validating the don’t press send while you are very upset mantra. To test his hypothesis, Ariely used a sample of 18-21 year old college males and asked them questions about arousal, when sober and then when aroused. Very illuminating, to say the least, and quite the interesting use of cellophane by a legitimate MIT-sponsored study.

One of the most powerful chapters in the book highlights our inability to make actual decisions that close doors on other choices, whether at work, in a restaurant or in our relationships — or any other venue where saying no actually eliminates an option for that matter. This pattern of indecision is clearly dominant in our society and probably ingrained in a generation with boundless options (what to wear, where to eat, what to buy, where to buy from, what to watch, what to read, where to watch, where to read, who to talk to, what to talk on, when to talk, whether to tweet or post or tag or digg or…).

What struck me as profound is that choice is not just difficult, but we avoid it to our own detriment. We will keep doors open for the sake of having options, when in fact we might have a clear, stated, understood preference for only one.

And when we finally do make a choice, we lament and whine and feel guilty and doubt, when unproductive reflection is a sunk cost. Our inability to make a decision and own up to the decisions that we do make transform what we envision to be the flowery path of least resistance into the bloody trenches of most. As the oft-used cliche goes, we are our own worst enemies, creating problems not out of those bad decisions, but more likely from those non-decisions that put us in positions where bad decisions are most readily made. And repeated.

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One comment

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, πŸ™‚

    A definite great read….

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