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January 26, 2009

An Occasional Will to Stupidity

Tags: , , , , — Strange Loops @ 12:40 am

“Once the decision has been made, close your ear even to the best counter argument: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

We live in a world of many choices: the foods we eat, the careers we choose, the relationships we foster, every consumer good we buy. We tend to have more than a binary yes/no choice, but rather many options, often with complicated trade-offs involving many dimensions. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but which peanut butter should I get: Crunchy or creamy? Reduced fat, normal fat or normal fat with extra omega-3′s? All-natural or not? Store brand or name brand? Which jelly: strawberry, grape, apricot-pineapple, or countless other fruit choices? Jam, jelly or preserves? Low sugar, low sugar with other additives, or normal? Relative balance of cheap, healthy and tasty?

Paradox of Choice

Even simple decisions like this can present a crippling array of possibilities, over which we may feel some pressure to maximize and find the “right one”. But there’s a fine line between giving a little thought to decisions here and there, and agonizing over labels and minor cost differences at every choice.

Unfortunately, it’s not just minor matters that present us with myriad options. Buying a car: New or used? Lease or purchase? Cash or finance? Make, model, color, options, all of which we can easily find extensive information about. Presumably the more information we have — the better informed our decision is — the better our choice will be. This is what I might call the naive rationalist assumption.

Naive because informing ourselves and deliberating over options can take significant amounts of time and include plenty of stress, and those costs may not be worth it for minor decisions. Surely it is worth it for big decisions like a car purchase though, right?

Well, sure, on some level. But consider some other choices many people have today that they didn’t have to worry about as much. When you visit a doctor these days, you are rarely told what to do, but rather presented with information and options. The doctor gives her informed opinion, tells you the trade-offs, and maybe even gives you a rough estimate of the chances of various complications with each choice: but in the end, the choice is yours. Same often goes for those who invest their money in a retirement plan: we’re presented with many different options, lots of information and contradictory opinions, but in the end we’re expected to figure out what we want. Today we have more decisions — both big and small — than perhaps any time in history, and even just the big ones are often complicated enough that an expert can’t give a straightforward answer of what is best.

We are overwhelmed by options, in what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the “paradox of choice”. Western dogma says that maximizing freedom and choice maximizes welfare, but he disagrees. Unprecedented control over our lives comes with an unprecedented responsibility; it places the burden of blame directly on us.

Schwartz suggests that for achieving happiness, it is better to be a “satisficer” (accept what is good-enough) than a “maximizer” (always aiming for the best possible decision). Maximizers are hit with an increased responsibility which brings with it increased stress and other accompanying problems.

For one thing, it can lead to indecision: Mark Lepper at Stanford did a study presenting people with a choice between 6 jams or a choice between 24 jams, and people presented with just 6 choices were more likely to make a purchase. The others may have been overwhelmed by all the options to the point that they avoided the decision altogether. Of course, with some choices we can’t avoid a decision, or at best we can put it off a while (the danger of this being that nothing ever happens, a life lived on auto-pilot).

Indecision

Another problem, perhaps deeper than indecision, that comes with maximizing is regret. As humans, we can engage in “counter-factual thinking” (imagining alternate possibilities for what happened) as well as construct visions of multiple possible futures. We may look back on our choices and see what could have been, and unfortunately, we may have a tendency to emphasize the good sides of alternate-histories and gloss over the potential downsides.

As psychologist Dan Gilbert has shown, people tend to be really crappy predictors of how much and especially how long emotional events will affect us (for example, whether you become paraplegic or win a lottery, your overall happiness tends to go back toward a baseline level in a matter of months, much faster than you would likely predict). We may look at counter-factuals to our choices and overestimate how good things could have been. Likewise, we may look at multiple possible futures that branch off from a choice and be horrible at predicting how happy certain outcomes or paths will make us in the long run compared to others.

Perhaps regret does serve a useful function, say as a mechanism to improve bad situations — we are pushed to remove the cause of regret in order to remove its aversive effects on our emotional and mental life. Interestingly, though, control seems to be an important factor in the equation of regret. The less ability you have to change things, the less regret you may feel. This might be why old people tend to actually score higher in self-reports of happiness. (Though recent research suggests that happiness and life satisfaction seem to follow a general U-shaped curve, high in youth and old age, and dipping down in middle age). Once the ability to change your mind is gone, regret no longer serves a useful function, and it may in fact be diminished.

Getting back to the main topic, this suggests a tantalizing clue at one way to deal with the paradox of choice. Satisficing, as Schwartz suggests, is important, and we already do it to some extent (else we could spend a life trying to choose the best car for our situation). More than that, though, there may be significant benefits to just forcing yourself to make a choice and committing to it wholeheartedly. If you can leave yourself no options for going back, all the better; once the element of control is removed, you might find that regret is eased, and the stress of the choice no longer confronts you.

More likely, though, every path you choose to go down won’t be irrevocable, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities for change. This can be a blessing — remember, you’re not stuck with the choice, so why fret so much? — but as we’ve seen it can also be a curse. Thus, training yourself to mentally stick to a decision, big or small, once it is made may be a distinct advantage when it comes to satisfaction with your decision. You may make the “wrong” choice — one a maximizer would call irrational — but likely your life will go on. And remember that the maximizer is just as bad at predicting long-term emotional outcomes as you are, so even major negative consequences may not sting as bad or as long as we think. More importantly, they may sting less than the paralysis of indecision, the pain of agonizing over options, and the stress of constantly worrying about making the ideal choice.

It may seem irrational to just pick something and dive in, rather than worrying over finding the best option, but if it actually leads to a happier life in the long run, isn’t that the rational choice? Thus, as Nietzsche says, an occasional will to stupidity might be called for, lest we stupidly sit on our choices so long that we miss out on every opportunity.

“Maybe all one can do,” wrote playwright Arthur Miller, “is hope to end up with the right regrets.”

3 Comments »

  1. Hey.. how beautifully written. You made my day!

    And even more beautifully ended.. “May be all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets”!!

    Thank you

    Comment by Kais — March 27, 2009 @ 3:18 am

  2. With the caveat that I’ve not read Schwartz’ work and am jumping into this discussion with little preparation, it seems to me that there’s a major distinction to be made between making a decision and committing to a decision once made.

    The first is almost always a good thing. More opportunities are lost to indecision than to bad choices, and the inability to act does seem to be very common these days. Anecdotally, though, the second seems directly responsible for rather a lot of the discontent and unhappiness in the world. How many people live in a constant state of disappointment and regret because they can’t bring themselves to turn their back on a commitment, be it a marriage, a career path, the city they’ve chosen to live in? Satisficing in situations where all your decisions have already been made may be a fine strategy for avoiding regret, but if it keeps you from acting on choices that still remain, it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

    At least within the context of my own experience and the lives of close friends, people seem to be least content when they’re trying to stick to old decisions rather than making new ones. Now, perhaps if you can genuinely convince yourself that your choices are as good as any other, you’d be able to escape that feeling. But, I can pretty much guarantee that that’s not a state I’ll ever be capable of achieving. At least for me, the choice is between settling for something that I don’t actually enjoy (and *knowing it*) and being willing to change my life plan at a moment’s notice in pursuit of what I actually want at any given time. Given those two options, I’ll take the later any day.

    In any event, though, it’s quite a thoughtful post. I’m happy to see all the new activity here since I last stopped by. It’s always a pleasure to read what SL has to say.

    Comment by Loki — May 17, 2009 @ 12:24 am

  3. I see what you’re saying. Certainly I wouldn’t tell anyone that they should never change their circumstances or revise their decisions. What I wrote was really reacting against one type of person or situation — chronic indecision or wondering about other options or ‘waffling’. Think of Buridan’s Ass, perhaps. Being able to commit to a decision can be psychologically empowering and remove a lot of stress, worry, regret, etc. And *if* Schwartz is right, it may even be more common than we (intuitively) think that our happiness really will go up when our options to change our mind are taken away. In other words, you say “Given those two options, I’ll take the later any day” but Schwartz might say that you are wrong about what will make you happiest in the long run.

    (Which assumes that happiness is your goal; or that the long run is what counts most…)

    Then again, more likely it’s not straightwardly in either direction (and I’m speaking now statistically of people in general, not just you). There are maybe circumstances where it is best not to spend much time wavering over whether to switch (standing in line at the supermarket, should I really agonize over whether to jump out of line at the last second to switch to a low-sugar jelly?); and there may be circumstances where it is best to continually reevaluate your decision.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply that one should always just make a decision and stick to it forever. But in those cases where leaving options open does more harm than good… the problem is identifying such situations, which is no doubt a personal thing.

    And when you phrase it in terms of choosing between something you know you don’t enjoy vs changing your circumstances, it’s obvious that change is healthy there.

    But what if I frame it as choosing between something you don’t enjoy *because you have left other options open* and something you *think* you’ll enjoy if you switch, and considering that you might not be the best predictor of outcome happiness (or whatever); then is your intuition pumped at all in the other direction? Maybe you would be happiest with your initial choice (compared to the other options obtaining) if you didn’t see the other options as real possibilities, and perhaps your rational evaluations that another possibility is better than this current one turn out to be wrong (once you have option B, option A looks better again, or C looks better…).

    Or perhaps (B while wondering whether A or C or D would be better) is better than (A while wondering whether B or C or D would be better), *BUT* (A with no other option) is better than either of them?

    Obviously, this is all in general terms that makes it hard to apply universally (and it shouldn’t!), and easy to find counterexamples. But it at least seems plausible to me that some situations would in fact be better if choice were removed. Wisdom lies in identifying those situations.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

    Comment by Strange Loops — May 17, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

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