This is the first of an occasional series on the psychology (and philosophy) of decision making. I’m interested in this topic because, as a mediator, one of the things I do is to help people make good decisions (or at least, to understand the implications of their decisions).
Most of us make a huge number of decisions each day. A few are momentous; most seem trivial at the time. And yet trivial decisions, made over and over, can take on huge significance.
Faced with two ice cream shops – one boasting 56 flavours and the other with less than a dozen – most of us would choose the first. Why risk not finding exactly the flavour we’re craving?
We tend to think it is a good idea to “keep our options open.” We’re often reluctant to take an action that would close off opportunities or give us fewer choices.
Yet keeping options open is sometimes exactly the wrong strategy. When we delay the moment of choice and keep options open for too long, we can cause ourselves unnecessary stress. Moreover, we can lose out by failing to commit.
All-Round Athlete or MVP?
Meet 12-year old Tim. He plays hockey on Saturday mornings, gets to school early on Thursdays to run on the cross country team, and has soccer practice two nights a week. If Tim’s goal is to be active and have fun, no problem. But if Tim has dreams of playing minor league hockey one day, he might do better to drop cross-country or soccer so he can spend more time on hockey. And he’s even more likely to develop expert hockey skills if he concentrates exclusively on hockey.
The same thing applies in other aspects of our lives: Keep your options open by continuing to casually date a number of partners and you may miss the chance to deepen a relationship with any of them. Pursue a number of business ideas and you might be left without the resources to invest in that one really good idea.
Too Many Open Doors?
A psychological experiment illustrates our tendency to keep options open far too long. The experimenters developed a computer game where players had a choice of three different doors. Click on a door, you win a small amount of money. The payout of each door varied. As one door open, more appeared. Each player had a maximum of 100 clicks. The goal is to win as much money as possible by finding the highest paying doors. The difficult part was that if a player ignored a door for more than 12 clicks, that door disappeared, never to reveal its reward. Would it be better to keep clicking within one door, or track back to explore the doors that hadn’t yet been opened?
The experimenters found that players who rushed to keep as many doors open as possible earned less money than those who picked a door and stuck with it. What surprised me was that even some players who tried the game hundreds of times kept on with the same losing strategy. We’re so conditioned to keeping “doors open” that we don’t even notice the cost of doing it.
The Cost of Choice
When we keep options open we have more choices. But greater choice isn’t actually always beneficial. A large number of choices means more time weighing different options. The more comparisons we have to make, the higher cognitive load. The result is stress, frustration, and fatigue.
When we have a number of options, we tend to evaluate them in terms of “missed opportunities.” We focus on what we might lose if we close a door. Yet we rarely think about what might happen if we dissipate our energy by leaving too many doors open.
A better strategy than FOMO (“Fear of Missing Out”) is to evaluate options according to their potential to help us reach a goal. Tim might fear that dropping soccer will mean he never makes the school team. But if his goal is minor league hockey, then practicing soccer might actually be holding him back. He might be happier in the long run if he spends more of his time doing skating drills.
Making it Relevant
The results of the “door” experiment have some real-world implications. Think about how you spend your time. Do all of your leisure activities give you the same level of enjoyment? If you dropped one or more of the ones you enjoy less, would you have more time to spend on ones that give you more pleasure?
When choosing between options – or helping others make choices – simplify the process. Start by eliminating some options from the beginning. For example, if there are 5 options, eliminate the worst two. Simply take them off the table, so there are three options to choose from.
Finally, to chose the options that will most likely allow you to achieve your goals, you must know what those goals are. So spend some time thinking about what is important to you. Where do you want to be one year from now? Ten years? Knowing the answer to these questions – or at least spending some time thinking about them – should help you decide which doors to close.
Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, Harper Perennial, 2008.
Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, Harper Perennial, 2004.
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