Dark Nights of the Soul
Entrepreneurial Karma: Call for Early-Stage Recommender System Startups

The Paradox of Choice: Decisions, Happiness and Appreciation

In addition to seeding my last post - on Dark Nights of the Soul - by sending me a link to an evocative image, Yogi also sent me a link to a 20-minute video of Barry Schwartz giving a presentation on The Paradox of Choice a few years ago at a TED conference.

Paradoxofchoice The presentation is derived from Barry's book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More, about which he says (during the video presentation), "I wrote a whole book to try to explain this [paradox] to myself" ... reminding me of why I blog ... or why David Whyte writes poetry ("Poetry is the art of hearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew" - (well, at least I think these are all related)).

Barry offers an engaging theory on why increasing choices often makes people miserable:

  1. Regret and anticipated regret
  2. Opportunity costs
  3. Escalation of expectations
  4. Self-blame

He is not railing against choice(s), but instead arguing that the "official dogma" - having more choices leads to more freedom and [thus] greater welfare - is wrong, that we pass a point of diminishing returns after which welfare - or happiness - decreases as the range of choices increase. As he says "some choice is better than no choice, but more choice is not necessarily better than some choice". While I generally and enthusiastically agree with many of his points, I think we differ on where the points of diminishing returns start, whether or how to set boundaries near those points, and whether there are other ways of approaching choice that may affect these points.

Barry draws some of of his examples of overwhelming choices from his supermarket, which stocks 250 varieties of cookies, 75 iced teas, 230 soups, 175 salad dressings, 275 cereals and 40 toothpastes (several years ago, a Washington Post article on Toothpaste Proliferation Syndrome reported finding 179 varieties of toothpaste in a virtual stroll down the aisle at Drugstore.com).

One of the side effects of so much choice is that it increases the likelihood that we'll make a "wrong" choice, and the corresponding likelihood that we'll regret our choice ... and the likelihood that we'll anticipate regretting our choice:

Even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than if we had fewer options to choose from.
...
With a lot of different salad dressings to choose from, if you buy one and it's not perfect ... it's easy to imagine you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all about the option that you chose.

TurtlesallthewaydownDecision_tree_modelFurther on in the presentation, Barry distinguishes between time spent making decisions vs. acting on those decisions, which evoked an image of spending more time computing in the nodes vs. traversing the branches of a decision tree. But upon further reflection, this representation of activity led me to start wondering what proportion of of the time we are acting on previous, or higher level, decisions, is actually spent making lower level decisions, many of which we may not even be conscious of ... whether, in effect, it's decisions all the way down.

Shifting from decision theory to political theory, representative democracy strikes me as one model for modulating choice, wherein we elect representatives who we then hope will make good decisions regarding a large number of options across a wide range of topics on our behalf (behalves?). I rarely hear people complain about the overwhelming range of choices in political candidates (in this country), although I often hear people complain about decisions made by our "elected" politicians ... especially during a U.S. presidential election year. 

I'm reminded of much I've heard and read about "tastemakers" and "trendsetters", and I imagine we often tend to gravitate toward official and unofficial "authorities" to reduce our anxiety over the array of choices. One of the benefits of this tendency is that it can simplify our lives. However, the shadow side of this tendency reflects Don Miguel Ruiz' notion of "domestication" (described in the introduction of his book, The Four Agreements), in which we learn to defer to authorities as children, and eventually learn to constrain ourselves based on what we think the authorities would want us to think, feel and do. [The Four Agreements are about unlearning this domestication, or at least consciously making agreements about what rules - and rulers - we are willing to follow. I've written about two of them before - don't take anything personally and always do your best - and will surely find a pretext to blog about the other two - be impeccable with your word and don't make assumptions.]

This delegation of power to authorities is what bothered me most about the presentation. Barry complains that doctors no longer tell us what to do, but instead list alternatives we might consider. Personally, I like doctors presenting alternatives with relative benefits and risks vs. telling us (me) what to do; the latter, more "traditional" (and "authoritative") approach strikes me as disempowering, and I would greatly prefer to deal directly with the misery entailed by being offered a multitude of health care alternatives than to suffer the degradation of condescending "doctor's orders".

The idea of delegation is closely related to surrogation, which reminds me of Dan Gilbert's ideas on how we make decisions (poorly) and how we ought to make decisions (using a surrogate). As I'd noted in an earlier post on Dan's book, Stumbling on Happiness, he argues that

rather than relying solely on our selves (and our fallible memories) to imagine how happy we will feel in some future state, we should capitalize on the experience of others by inquiring about the happiness of those who are already in the future state we are considering ... the problem [then] is figuring out which others we ought to consult in estimating our future ... I want to know what people like me like.

[I'll also note, here, that I recently discovered a TED video of Dan's presentation on Stumbling on Happiness].

Given my renewed research into recommender systems, and some recent ruminations about re-rethinking recommendation engines, I see how such systems can also play a key role in effectively addressing the increasing array of choices we face in our lives ... and in helping me find people like me ... and what those people like.

What people [like me] like reminds of David Whyte's perspective on why we are liked (or loved), expressed through his poem, "This Time":

Those stars told him
they loved him only
for what he loved himself.
They did not love him
for who he was.

So, people like me [might] like me for what I like.

Toward the end of his presentation, Barry wryly comments "the secret to happiness is low expectations". I've been a student of happiness for some time, and am intrigued with many dimensions of the art, science and business of happiness. And so, I again turn from the science to art - from psychology to poetry - and invoke Oriah Mountain Dreamer's perspective on the secret to happiness ... which not only offers a contrast to Barry's, but also seems to conflict with the sentiment expressed by David Whyte (which is particularly incongruent, for me, as one of his workshops had inspired her earlier prose poem, The Invitation, and I find a great deal of congruence between that poem and his poem, Self Portrait). Oriah expresses a view which has more to do with greater appreciation - and less to do with lower expectations - and seems to admit the possibility that we might well love ourselves for who we are (not just for what we love) in the Prelude to her book, The Dance:

What if your contribution to the world and the fulfillment of your own happiness is not dependent upon discovering a better method of prayer or technique of meditation, not dependent upon reading the right book or attending the right seminar, but upon really seeing and deeply appreciating yourself and the world as they are right now?

So maybe what we really need in the next generation of recommender systems - as a way out of the paradox of choice - is new mechanisms to help us better appreciate ourselves, and the people, places and things around us ... and perhaps new ways for expressing our love for people, places and things.

In any case, I think a healthy dose of Susan Jeffers' "no-lose decision model" (from her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway ) offers a remedy for avoiding the misery and regret that Barry talks about. I've mentioned it before, but I'll include it yet again, as I think it is relevant (and helpful):

Before you make a decision:

  1. Focus immediately on the no-lose model (whichever path you choose will provide learning opportunities … even if it’s learning what you don’t like)
  2. Do your homework (talk to as many people as will listen … both to help clarify your own intention and to get alternative perspectives)
  3. Establish your priorities (which pathway is more in line with your overall goals in life – at the present time)
  4. Trust your impulses (your body gives you good clues about which way to go)
  5. Lighten up (it really doesn’t matter – it’s all part of a lifelong learning process)

After making a decision:

  1. Throw away the picture (if you focus on what you expected, you may miss the unexpected opportunities that arise along the new path you’ve chosen)
  2. Accept total responsibility for your decision (don’t give away your power)
  3. Don’t protect, correct (commit yourself to any decision you make and give it all you got … but if it doesn’t work out, change it!)

Although we may not want to apply the full range of this model in every choice we make - talking to as many people as will listen about which toothpaste to buy seems a bit extreme - but lightening up and letting go seem like good practices to apply to all our choices.

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