“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?
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).
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.”