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When It's Bad to Have Good Choices (newyorker.com)
166 points by nkurz on Aug 2, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments



There are a couple of popular TED talks about choice.

http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_ch...

It's something to keep in mind with your development work as well. Let's say you create an application to minify javascript. Your app has an input field, and a button that says 'Go', and that's it. Very simple, no confusion, people love it.

However, you notice 5% of people don't use the app, because they want to keep comments in their minified code, and you don't include that option. A lot of developers decide they'll add a checkbox to include comments, because now everyone can be happy. It doesn't quite work that way, because now the 95% of people that don't want comments see this checkbox, and start to question themselves. Wait, why do people want comments included in their minified code, should I be checking this box? Is there something I'm doing wrong? Do most people check the box or not, I'd like to know to validate my decision, otherwise I feel uneasy. The more options you add, the more this has an effect.

In the end, maybe the 95% are feeling so uneasy, 10% of them leave to another app, that just has a 'Go' button again, so they feel confident, and more happy. So, by adding the checkbox to include comments, the 5% of people that were asking for the feature now start using the app, but you lose 10% of the original audience because of the additional choice.

It's a difficult balance, and you really need to focus on the majority, and be careful about building out features the minority are requesting. If you look at apps like Twitter or Snapchat (or Yo, on the extreme side, and not yet proven), they succeed by limiting the amount of choice available to users. Many developers would have added more options, or in the case of Twitter given users the ability to write longer tweets because it seems harmless, but at the same time, it would have caused the businesses to fail.


Personally, while the research is interesting, I think it's also being far too overused as justification to remove/not add options. The common counterargument of "just use another product that does have the option you want" often turns out to be as fruitless - that other product may not have some option you want (that this one does), due to the same reasoning!

I also fundamentally disagree that removing choices is a good thing - the research says it makes (most?) people feel better, which suggests that they don't want to think about making any choices because it is somehow difficult for them and causes anxiety. Logically, this means they would be most satisfied and happy if they didn't have to make any choices or do any thinking at all, and something/someone else made all the decisions for them - the equivalent of having no freedom or control over one's life. Is this really what we want society to become?

"Making choices is hard, so just give up"? To me, that's where it looks like things are heading, and quite frankly it's a rather disturbing trend. I most definitely do not want to have nearly every decision in my life made by someone else, and find the anxiety/difficulty of the process to be absolutely normal.

Maybe there is a good balance somewhere in between, but I'm definitely strongly biased in the direction of being able to have the freedom to make choices, no matter how difficult, and take control of my life.


I most definitely do not want to have nearly every decision in my life made by someone else, and find the anxiety/difficulty of the process to be absolutely normal.

Approximately every decision that's ever been made and affects you was made by someone else.

From toothpaste formulation to water cleanliness approval standards to mains electric plug standards to zoning regulations, pavement width, tram or train schedules, volumes of alcohol that can be sold, material books are printed on, blend of spices in KFC batter or how long a film is, what goes in an ethernet frame fields, how radio frequencies are licensed, where keyboard input goes through the Mac OS kernel, why your local shops stock X instead of Y...

You don't want the decisions you care about made by other people - who would?

But if you say you want to make nearly every decision that gets made in your life? I don't believe you could, or would want to, if faced with what that really meant.

I don't wan't to decide my own custom HN colour scheme and font size and font face and text colour contrast with background colour and font sub-pixel hinting style and text box resize behaviour interacting with a high-DPI rendered display, and whether the page POST has headers announcing this or that. The defaults chosen by Google Chrome team, Microsoft Windows team and HN designers are all fine.


There is balance but it's not easy to find.

If I visit a restaurant, and they only serve chicken, that's kind of limited. Now, they give me the option of beef or chicken. Ok, this is a decision I can make, and be confident in selecting. Now, what happens if they ask whether I would like northwestern chicken, southern chicken, grain fed chicken, or korean chicken? Huh? I'm not a master of chicken, just give me the best one.

We hit a point where I no longer have a strong opinion, and this is where my confidence drops, and I start to question myself. This means they've given me too much choice.

This isn't the same for everyone, someone out there knows their chicken inside and out, and they have a preference for one specific type. If you want to cater your restaurant towards those people then give them that choice. However, you'll be scaring away the average person at the same time.

For the same reason it's difficult to make an application for casual and advanced users. Pick your audience, and that'll give you some guidance on the appropriate amount of choice to include.


How would you like me to give you the best one? Wine first, delay, then meal? Wine then meal with no delay? Drinks and chicken brought together on a tray?

Cutlery wrapped in a serviette or not? Chicken with sauce or sauce in a jug? Chicken covered in sauce, or with some on it, or with the sauce around it? What temperature sauce? How would you like the plate rotated - chicken towards you, or veg towards you? What kind of veg? How big?

Decisions are fractal, everywhere you look there are potentially huge numbers of decisions that someone, somewhere, might plausibly care about, but most people don't.

Beyond where you don't have a strong opinion (I guess one chicken option might be better, but I don't know which) and your confidence drops, you climb back up to a place where you have a strong opinion again and your opinion is "it doesn't matter [to me]", and from there onwards it's not a matter of "I don't know which to chose" it's a matter of "STOP WASTING MY LIFE WITH THIS POINTLESS NONSENSE".

I suspect that the internet puts people on both sides of this gap together, far more often, more quickly, and with less structure, than previous human history has.


This. > "STOP WASTING MY LIFE WITH THIS POINTLESS NONSENSE".

I work in datacenter solutions sales, and the majority of my customers know what they want in terms of vendor/product series. However, they need our help for specific performance and capacity sizing, as well as adjusting to fit a budget. This probably it true for about 95% of customers.

However, there is another 5%, that simply want a good solution for their needs. They don't care how, and if they're smart, they have some specific business requirements to share. These ones are EASY to upset as displayed in the comment above if we 'waste' their time asking detailed option questions they really don't care about.

To be successful in this, you have to triage early and set the customer engagement on the proper path!


> I also fundamentally disagree that removing choices is a good thing - the research says it makes (most?) people feel better, which suggests that they don't want to think about making any choices because it is somehow difficult for them and causes anxiety. Logically, this means they would be most satisfied and happy if they didn't have to make any choices or do any thinking at all, and something/someone else made all the decisions for them - the equivalent of having no freedom or control over one's life.

You're equivocating removing choices that one ultimately wouldn't make any way (i.e. "false choices") with removing all choice.

> Is this really what we want society to become?

Also slippery-sloping.


Note: “equivocating” does not mean “equating”.


> I also fundamentally disagree that removing choices is a good thing

You may want to revise that perspective. Besides constraints being key to creativity, they are also key to good design. Every design needs to limit options.

Additionally, it doesn't directly follow that society will have their decisions made by other people; and to the extent that it does, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Once again: fewer options -- constraints -- are key in creativity.


I don't know if a single choice would throw many people off, but there's certainly software out there where there's a thriving ecosystem built on top of it to reduce its complexity and number of choices. Ffmpeg comes to mind. I've never used it directly, but I've used several apps that wrap over it and provide the user a constrained list of options that are presumably optimized for different scenarios. I then don't have to worry about selecting a set of bad options and wasting time creating and disk space storing bad conversions.


This is exactly how I felt about many of Medium.com's recent changes to their editor. It was well loved before because it was very straight-forward -- enter title, write piece. Now there's all kinds of options and flexibility and customization, and it's turning into just another online writing platform.


I think Doodle handles this well; it provides a single clear path for its 90% use case, and hides extra options in dropdowns that clearly designate those options as "abnormal", but nonetheless acceptable.


> In the end, maybe the 95% are feeling so uneasy, 10% of them leave to another app, that just has a 'Go' button again, so they feel confident, and more happy.

You can't knowingly hide from choice: the existence of a different application that only has the Go button is not an escape, it is just yet another choice. The exact same story you described within the microcosm of the single application now plays out between the two applications, as the prospective user wonders why the application with the checkbox exists, as its very existence implies that maybe they should carefully consider whether they should be checking that box. Only now there are even more complex issues to decide: do the two applications even work the same in the situation that don't check the box? Now, even if you kind of think you want the comments, maybe you should be using this new application because maybe it works better in some way you don't quite understand... so you have to research the two applications or even test them against your files, coming up with your own (potentially flawed!) metric of comparison.

Your model thereby only works for the percentage of people who have only heard about one application or the other: anyone who saw both applications has also seen the checkbox, and the choice inherently must have been decided in order for them to now be using the second application. Even if the first application is discontinued, the user will forever wonder if the newer applications they are forced to use instead are flawed because they don't have the checkbox, and despite never having actually checked the box, might question sometimes why someone would have even added such a checkbox were it not sometimes a good idea, and now the uneasiness simply consumes what they are working on: the task of minifying JavaScript itself maybe can never be satisfying. To the extent to which people actually are "leaving" an application because it has too many options, I thereby argue the real problem is not decision fatigue or crippling doubt, but in fact simply "confusion": they don't actually know what all the options do, or find the process of setting the options frustrating, and thereby move to a simpler application not because it frees them from having to make decisions (as again: decisions can only ever accumulate, they can never be taken away), but because it makes the process of actually using the application more straightforward and less cluttered.

You also can't model "limits" as removed decisions: Twitter limiting me to 140 characters actually makes my word choice really matter... I end up having to draft multiple versions of what I need to say in the hope of finding one that I can whittle to under 140 characters. I have friends help me decide which of the variants conveys the idea the best, and sometimes I have to decide to split the message into multiple parts (but as each will be replied to and retweeted separately, deciding what information needs to be replicated in both, but in a way that isn't awkward, is itself a difficult decision). I often just go "bah, this is too complex", and not send anything; whereas on Facebook or reddit, where I have no length limits, I tend to just type something and send it: with this comment, while I did a little editing afterwards, it was nowhere near the ordeal that happens when I have to start making decisions due to hitting a limit. I would in fact argue that all limits lead to decisions: a limit is effectively a constrained resource, and now you have to decide how to spend that constrained resource to best accomplish your goal; a system that does not impose a limit frees the user to always do what felt most natural in the moment, however wasteful. The argument with Twitter not breaking free of their SMS-limited history is usually along the lines of either "if the messages are so long people won't be able to quickly read a bunch of them", not "giving people the ability to type a lot means they will not bother typing at all"... I think we can attest to the shear volume of trite YouTube comments to demonstrate that people are quite happy stopping typing once they've stated their peace ;P.


About your first point, I don't think that's true.

For example, I visit the store to buy toothpaste. I might see 25 different kinds of Colgate, and 1 kind of Crest. Personally, I'd likely buy the Crest, because I can't decide between all the Colgate options of Ultrabrite, Optic White, Sparkling White, Sensitive, Sensitive Pro-Relief, Max Fresh, 2in1, Cavity Protection, Total, Total Advanced, Total Action, and Triple Action (these are all real names, and they have more).

You're saying I should see 26 individual options to compare and be overwhelmed with choice. However, if I buy Crest, I'm happy. This is because I trust their knowledge of toothpaste over my own, and pass the decision making to them. I assume their single option has the best formula. If I choose between Ultrabrite, Sparkling White and Optic White from Colgate, I'm less satisfied, because I'm unsure if I made the right choice, because I don't have a PhD in toothpaste.

This is no different than software. If Bing releases 100 new options to customize your experience with the search engine, does this make you less satisfied with using Google? Does it make you feel overwhelmed in choice? Not at all, if anything, you're even more happy with Google now. We just assume when someone gives us less choice, they're making the right choices for us.


To my untrained ear, this sounds like an argument over optimal versus satisficing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing). (I'm just tossing that out there: if this is something you already know about, just ignore my comment. I'll let myself out now...)


I don't think the argument from your first two paragraphs holds in the general case, when there are lots of options.

The first reason is that the user doesn't know which choices have been made for them by the developer. Imagining that the developers made good choices is not hard.

The second reason is that when no choice is given the user, then the developer is responsible. If the application works poorly it is the developers fault, and not the users for having clicked a stupid combination of checkboxes. If the user claims the reply will not be a smug reply how they should have read the manual and made better choices.

The third reason is reputation. If you hear good things about a program with little choice, then you know the devloper made good choices for you. If you hear good things about a program with lots of choices, then that may only mean that it works well when you made all of those choices in clever ways.


When faced with a difficult decision, it probably doesn't matter which choice you take. Emotionally it's difficult to accept this. But logically it's easy:

- If one of the two choices was clearly better, it would be an easy decision

- But it is difficult. Therefore, neither of the two choices is clearly better.

- Therefore, it doesn't matter much which you choose.

This doesn't work for people who feel irrational regret (ie, regretting a decision that turned out badly because of information that was not known at the time of the decision). Yes, irrational regret is very common. But it's just another logical failing that can be overcome.

If you still feel anxiety when forced to choose between two good choices, go visit a third world country.


Well your reasoning is a bit of a shortcut, and Ruth Chang[0] goes all the way down the rabbit hole, without having to resort to third world country fallacies.

[0]: http://www.ted.com/talks/ruth_chang_how_to_make_hard_choices


Thanks for this. The gist of the talk is that each hard choice gives us an opportunity to shape who we are and decide who we want to be. Hence we should look at hard choices that way and not shirk away from them.


This type of argument does not explain how to solve hard decisions, it simply says that if you know impact of each choice is similar, it is a simple decision.

There are endless ways for a decision to actually be hard. One is where the type of impact between options is different and difficult to compare. The difficulty may arise due to: uncertainty, complexity, lack of knowledge, value judgements, brutal trade-offs etc.

i) "Should I stay to treat to the ebola victim or leave with my family?" is hard because it involves value judgements, predictions, risks. It questions who you are. ii) "Should our startup be tightly integrated with facebook?" is hard because the potential impact is massive and requires substantial investigation to understand.

The very attempt to compare options can involve costs and feedback loops e.g. should I pay for an investigation, should I prototype this, should I wait for more info etc. The actions you take to compare options can change the available options. A single decision becomes a nested web of other decisions.

In the most general sense, making a decision is like devising a strategy. Is creating a good strategy easy or hard?

p.s. I'm working on this problem


Can you provide any more information on what you are working on? I, too, am interested in this problem, so it would be great to see any attempts at a solution.

Email is in my profile, if you'd rather not share here.


> "neither of the two choices is clearly better"

"Clarity" is dependent on what level of information you already have and what analysis you've already done.

In some circumstances, you've already done whatever investigation, research, and thinking can reasonably be done. If the choice is still hard, then the choice is likely to be of similar value either way and you may as well choose arbitrarily.

But in other circumstances, there's still investigation, research, or thinking that can be done (at a level of effort which is reasonable based on the importance of the decision.) In that case, one choice or the other may become clearly better if you are patient and diligent in the decision-making process. So be as patient as the decision warrants.


Yeah, I don't think paulsutter's post holds up to much scrutiny, except in the limited case where you have to make a decision immediately, or in the near future before you have time to do any meaningful research or calculation on the problem.

A problem is difficult when its potential consequences are serious and the best option is not obvious. But the best option can be non-obvious for two very different reasons: either it requires a lot of information and thus a lot of work to gather that information (like choosing a medical treatment), or it depends on randomness or other variables outside your control and understanding (like choose your lottery numbers, assuming someone gives you a lottery ticket).

For the latter case, it's pretty clear that you can choose randomly and shouldn't worry about your decision. For the former case, it's reasonable to "worry" in the sense that you should feel an urgency to gather the required information efficiently. Of course, it's not really that simple, because you have to optimize the cost of gathering information against the potential cost or gain from the decision itself. Also, the two reasons from the last paragraph are more like a continuum, because "randomness" is often effective randomness, i.e. you can't feasibly predict the outcomes despite them being deterministic.


If the research has a cost (and you know this cost), then you actually have three options: original option A, original option B, and research + correct option (or knowledge that both options are the same). If you can at least bound the costs of options A and B, you can make a pretty good guess as to whether the research is worth doing. If it's not, then choosing at random is the optimal choice, and you should not regret it.


Often when I am faced with two choices that I don't like I look up alternatives.


It's difficult or impossible to tell if you made the right choice though, so you have no way of knowing if you should regret your decision. If I visit the store and there are two boxes of cereal, or two deodorants, or two digital cameras, and I buy one of them, I start to feel unsure.

It doesn't matter if the cereal I bought tastes good or bad, I'll always wonder if the other option would have been better. Until I taste the other cereal, I'm left questioning my decision, and being unhappy.


The answer is to stop caring and satisfice. Optimizers are never happy.


I don't know if it's that simple, it's only human to question things in life, and it's one of the main reasons we've come so far in the first place.

Being unhappy and unsatisfied is the main reason we have the technology that currently exists. If people were satisfied traveling by horse, the automobile wouldn't exist. If people were satisfied with 480p, the HD television would never have been a worthwhile venture. Being continually unsatisfied is what causes us to strive higher.


If people were satisfied with horses and 480p, we'd be just as happy with those as we are with cars and 1080p. In fact, these decades and centuries of technological advancement hasn't, empirically, resulted in any enhancement in happiness anyway, because we're trapped on the hedonic treadmill: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill


I suppose I can reluctantly agree with that, although self-reported happiness surveys and all other attempts at interpersonal utility comparison are problematic. But even if I agree with that, what's the conclusion? Surely the people with horses become less happy when cars come into existence, at least until they upgrade to a car. So unless you can ban or otherwise prevent any new technology from being created, I don't see what meaningful conclusion or recommendation can be made from this claim.


Yes, but we wouldn't have cars or 1080p in the first place. Why would you develop 1080p technology if you were perfectly happy with 480p? Who would support your research and business by purchasing a 1080p tv, if they were already satisfied?

I never said any of this technology enhances our level of happiness. I just said as a species, being constantly unhappy could be one of our greatest strengths. Otherwise, we might be sitting in a cave, smiling at each other until an asteroid removed us from existence.


Who would support your research and business by purchasing a 1080p tv, if they were already satisfied?

Regular people may have been satisfied, but the military wasn't, who drove almost all of the research into the 80s. The consumer market is just a follow-on to that, where choices were presented to "me" as better.


I think you should read philwelch's post again. You seem to see development as an intrisic good thing, whereas philwelch does not (or at least questions it).

There is a world of difference between freezing in a cave and developing 1080p/2160p/4320p.


I think people living in the modern world, with all of our technology are no more happy than a caveman sitting by a fire with his family.

However, to survive as a species in the long term, we need to leave this planet. To do that, we need a number of advancements in technology.

So, if we can agree the survival of the species is in our benefit, then we can agree development is considered a good thing, even if it doesn't equate to an increase in happiness for the individual.


Except for medical technology : without it, the cave-man would have far fewer years of expected life-span to enjoy sitting by the fire with his family. And many of those years would be filled with ill-health, etc.


What's the damn point of surviving as a species on other planets? Because at that point, we'd be a different species anyway.


I've seen the "satisfice rather than optimize" meme a lot recently. I think it's a pretty weak argument. The problem is that there is still a potentially massive amount of calculations and predictions (about costs, opportunity costs, trends, etc.) required to choose a reasonable acceptability threshold. If you take more time to gather this relevant information you can probably choose a better acceptability threshold. The meta-analysis is still an optimization problem with an additional variable to optimize over.


It's not one argument. In its simplest form, take the digital camera megapixel race. Who in their right mind does anything useful with 20 megapixels, where most are buried in the noise levels for all common applications? Does that really need to be "optimized" further, even if it means quality and storage both suffers? A lot of real problems worked on in the industry could be described like that.


But if the satisficer's acceptability threshold is 25 megapixels, they're still not happy, and if their acceptability threshold is 0.5 megapixels, they'll be using a very noticeably poor camera.


Opportunity cost only exists if you're an optimizer.



It doesn't matter if the cereal I bought tastes good or bad, I'll always wonder if the other option would have been better. Until I taste the other cereal, I'm left questioning my decision, and being unhappy.

In this case you would probably be able to try the other option at some time in the future, so why would you be unhappy? I'd definitely do that, and probably alternate between the two if they seem equally good.


Pretty sure this is wrong. For example, in poker, what separates the good players from the suckers is how good you are at making these tough calls. Bad players flip coins, good players use all the information available.


I assume you are perfectly adjusted and have no regrets then.


This article focuses on the choice you have as a consumer. Which brand, which flavor, which stack of hay?

But I observe a similar crippling effect when working on software. Every step along the way of producing a software product involves making an incredible amount of choices. Choices like, 'what platform?', 'what programming language?', 'which algorithm?', etc. I believe that the the freedom we have as a software engineers forces us to make more choices than in any other engineering discipline.

There is a certain anxiety involved in make such engineering choices. Will this choice work out in the end, or am I going to waste a lot of time implementing and later reversing this for the other option?


Anecdote/data-point 90% of my side-projects never got out of "playing with the tech stack" phase.

It is definitely not optimal, but is pretty common methinks.


In Poland there is very famous children's rhymed short story about a donkey regarding this paradox of choice, so polish children are very early confronted with this paradox and warned about possible consequences (donkey dies of hunger in the end). Rhymed form makes it stick so good that we even have a saying for describing person experiencing paradox of choice that is literally the first line of this story.

Story: http://pl.wikisource.org/wiki/Chciwo%C5%9B%C4%87_os%C5%82a

Saying: http://pl.wiktionary.org/wiki/osio%C5%82kowi_w_%C5%BC%C5%82o...


I spent months of my freshman year highly anxious for similar first-world reasons. I excel at and enjoy lots of things and felt like school was making me commit to one field. I would spend days very inactive, stressing out about, for example, the pros and cons of being a game programmer versus an embedded software engineer or something. I could never seem to settle on one area. I thought game programming was a waste of engineering talent, but I found everything else about it extremely appealing. Luckily I'm over that crap now, as I accept what I knew all along: that it's not what you major in that defines you. It's what you do in life that matters. It also helps to be in a field that applies to virtually everything else (CS). I'd go even more crazy if I were in some highly specialized field. Strangely, I'd say the best cure for this is a brief existential crisis.


"(...) a concept that the Swarthmore University psychologist Barry Schwartz would then popularize and rename as the paradox of choice."

Last time I checked, there is no such a thing as "Swarthmore University": Barry Schwartz is affiliated with Swarthmore College instead [1,2,3].

Might seem pedantic, but the New Yorker of yore would never let such a slip --online or not. Such editing.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paradox_of_Choice:_Why_More...

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_Schwartz_(psychologist)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swarthmore_College


It is a pretty big error by New Yorker standards. I expect it will be fixed.


Sounds familiar. I wish the article had some sort of suggestion or hint as to what to do when you're really prone to anxiety. I have several very good options in my life right now and have made a tenative decision on what to do, but I'm finding I'm crippled by anxiety over my decision.



paulsutter gave a good answer to this elsewhere in the comments. But I would add this: All other things being equal (or roughly equal), pick one at random.

Sure, there's opportunity cost, but there are also costs way beyond the time you take fretting over a decision. You said it yourself: You're "crippled" by anxiety. How is that better than making a random decision? Or just going with your gut?


In my case, its a pretty stark decision: money or time. I have an opportunity to live and work wherever I please through a long-standing partnership with a company, or make a lot (a lot) more money through one of several other opportunities but more than likely have less time to enjoy and less freedom in where I go. I feel that both my career and life path hinge very closely on my decision, but I already have very strong leanings for the former. It is more difficult because I have a lot of friends and colleagues who do not share my philosophy on having a much stronger life balance.


I think it's naive to assume that simply making a random decision would remove or reduce anxiety. Anxiety doesn't only come from the fear of regretting your decisions; it also comes from the fear of receiving a negative outcome, even if that outcome was "chosen" by a coin flip or a third party. Hence people are anxious to receive news after a job interview, or a call about a loved one's medical condition, despite both having nothing to do with their own decisions.


It's not that making a random decision will remove or reduce anxiety. It's that making a non-random choice 1) won't improve the predicted outcome and 2) won't reduce or remove the anxiety either.

Given the alternatives of either 1) not making a decision, 2) drawing out the decision for a long time, or 3) failing to act in time on the option, simply making a random initial commitment addresses the decisionmaking aspect.

Many decisions are capable of being reversed or changed later. If you're ever in a situation where you must decide (stay or jump from a burning building, say), there's still likely to be an option which is least bad. Even those who jumped from the WTC on 9/11 were making a decision. The outcome wasn't optimal, but in the circumstances, it may well have been preferable to the alternative.


Another benefit of flipping a coin is that if, after the choice is made (e.g. the coin comes up heads), you instinctively regret it not having been tails : then you know what you wanted in your heart. Since your brain had no better answer than to flip a coin, then this is a quick and rationalizable way to see what your heart feels.


That's, not finding your true desire, though, that's just triggering the regret reaction.

Flipping a coin is a way to think about the "what if I choose option B" in a way that feels like someone else made the decision so it's OK to resist it, instead of feeling like you made the descision yourself and get stuck in consistency bias (stubbornness).


I submit that "anxiety" here could be better defined as: the mental taxation of evaluating the opportunity cost for turning down each of the available alternatives, given a person's position on Maslow's hierarchy of needs


This article really resonnates with me, having had to choose between two very interesting jobs. It took me 2 weeks to decide and was a really anxious period, whereas without a choice I would have taken either without a second thought.


It seems to me that, in pretty much every field, the most rewarding tasks, often with the most highly regarded results, are the most constrained— rhyming schemes and meter in poetry, immutability in programming, whatever.

It could just be freedom from the anxiety of choice (and just admiration for the creator's ability to succeed despite these constraints on the part of the audience). I feel like there's more to it than that, though.


> Lipowski thought of Buridan’s ass: an apocryphal donkey that finds itself standing between two equally appealing stacks of hay.

> ...

> While Lipowski’s work received some immediate wide attention, it soon fell into relative obscurity.

> ...

> Schwartz would then popularize and rename as the paradox of choice

No wonder. It's so much easier to be told that you are experiencing a paradox than to be told that you are behaving like an ass. Buridan’s or not.


Cognitive dissonance is a similar concept that is not new.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance

As quoted from that article:

"Cognitive dissonance is also useful to explain and manage post-purchase concerns. If a consumer feels that an alternate purchase would have been better, it is likely he/she will not buy the product again. To counter this, marketers have to convince buyers constantly that the product satisfies their need and thereby helps reduce their cognitive dissonance, ensuring repurchase of the same brand in the future."

Sounds like the writer is referring to cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger published his work on cognitive dissonance in 1959 making his discovery 11 years before Lipowski's publication in 1970 (as referenced by the article). Festinger in my mind is the godfather of this theory. Anyone agree?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Festinger


> The choices between those objects that they valued most highly were both the most positive and the most anxiety-filled. The more choices they had—the study was repeated with up to six items per choice—the more anxious they felt.

This sounds like nothing more than loss aversion. Until you make the choice you have opportunity to acquire some valuable things. When you make the choice you've lost all the things you didn't choose.

This leads to easy ways of alleviating anxiety. You just need to mentally devalue all the things you are supposed to choose from and when you make the choice, immediately devalue things you haven't chosen even more (getting hyped over the thing you just chose won't help because anxiety comes not for the lack of appreciation of what you gained but for too much appreciation for the things you've lost opportunity to obtain).


Sadly this is the sort of rationalizing that uunderlies racism/tribalism: hating people who are different feels better than feeling left out of their goodness.


This validates something I've suspected for a while: that decisiveness is valuable in and of itself.


From 'Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman':

The lieutenant takes me to the colonel and repeats my remark. The colonel says, "Just five minutes," and then he goes to the window and he stops and thinks. That's what they're very good at -- making decisions. I thought it was very remarkable how a problem of whether or not information as to how the bomb works should be in the Oak Ridge plant had to be decided and could be decided in five minutes. So I have a great deal of respect for these military guys, because I never can decide anything very important in any length of time at all.

In five minutes he said, "All right, Mr. Feynman, go ahead."

- http://quanta-gaia.org/reviews/books/FeymanJoking.html


For those who prefer video to text, Barry Schwartz (mentioned in the article) gave an insightful TED talk about this, as has Sheena Iyengar[1] (but I didn't know so haven't watched it... yet). Baba Shiv has an interesting take[2].

[0]: http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_ch...

[1]: http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosi...

[2]: http://www.ted.com/talks/baba_shiv_sometimes_it_s_good_to_gi...


I was ecstatic when I got my first job offer. Then I got a second. And a few more rolled in. Choosing became the most stressful part of the job hunt.

The companies I didn't pick made monster gains in the stock market --30% in one month.

Cry me a river, right?


I feel realizing that one's stressing over "first world" types of problems just makes it worse by adding shame to the mix.


This article is a bit shallow. I recommend Schwarz's book, The Paradox of Choice; it's a fun read and I found it very insightful.


The decisions are difficult because the gradient between them is low. So as https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8124172 says, just pick one.

Humans are great a ranking from a low number of choices. Too many choices or of similar quality and our ranking mechanisms break down.


I wonder if this phenomenon might be the primary factor in certain kinds of delayed marriage. I'm thinking, for example, of two people in their late 20s who have been dating for 5 years, figure marriage is in their future, but don't "feel ready".


The article doesn't distinguish between freedom to choose, and getting a ridiculous amount of trivial choice blasted at you in order to sell things. The latter is unnatural and psychologically abusive, and could easily cause stress.

But even supposed political freedom may be overrated. A demarchy might very well be better-performing, more representative, and less corruptible than an elected government. After all, term limits, devolution to more local government, and other "reforms" are just an approximation of demarchy. We sure don't get representation from our current system, but we do give authoritarians a veneer of legitimacy by voting. That's pretty stressful.

This is relevant to the Internet because the value and effectiveness of ads are an ongoing controversy, while at the same time funding much of what we use.


I've felt this when deciding what kind of yogurt to buy at the supermarket. There were simply too many varieties, so I often ended up not getting any, because I couldn't be bothered to decide.


This is why I hate that cinemas offer a choice between 2D and 3D. I just want to see whatever the director intended and not have to try to hunt down which version is 'better'.

Offering a choice makes going to the movies socially into an awkward experience. Inevitably there are people with diverging strong opinions and suddenly a social get together turns into dispute mediation. I think that if there was only one option, people would just deal with it.

Now I dread inviting certain people to the movies because I want a social experience without endlessly dragging up the 2D vs 3D debate.


It's me or there are a lot of articles from the newyorker which make the HN top?


>there are a lot of articles from the newyorker which make the HN top?

There has probably been a higher frequency lately since the New Yorker has gone no-paywall for the summer.


Great articles make HN top, I don't care about the source.


it's great! isn't it?


I see a lot of decisionmaking especially as it's foisted on the public in commercial choices to be largely false alternatives.

That is, there are a large number of options presented, under the guise of "choice is good", for which the ultimate effects of the outcome are "it doesn't matter".

The choices are also often not presented in a way that makes discriminating between alternatives straightforward. I'm reminded of a financial news program whose sponsor for a time was a credit card company bragging about "over 3,000 choices for consumers" in credit card options. That is, frankly, stupidly excessive.

But there are ways to present choices in a way which offers a very high level of tailoring of options without overwhelming the user with those options. I like to use the example of automobile heating/cooling controls common in the 1980s-1990s (the tendency toward thermostatic controls is changing this now).

For American car manufacturers, the preferred style was a heat control lever which went from low to high, a fan switch, usually with "flow", "lo", "med" ,and "hi" settings, and a vent + AC selector. This would allow for dash, floor, or defrost vents to be selected, as well as another addition set of vent settings in which AC was enabled. The presentation always struck me as confusing, and there were a number of vent/AC settings which weren't reachable.

This is pretty typical: http://www.autopartsdb.net/images/productimg/C/CX1884.JPG

Imports from Japan and Europe typically had four controls: a fan switch, a heat slider or dial, and a vent selector, plus an independent AC control. The method seemed a lot more sensible to me: are you hot (turn up the heat) or cold (turn on the AC), how much air do you want flowing (fan) and where do you want it (vent selector). Figuring out how to set the controls always seemed far more intuitive to me than the American controls.

Typical: http://www.autoecu.com/images/ebay/01%20-%2007%20TOYOTA%20HI...

One more recent modification is that often the AC is automatically activated (and sometimes cannot be deactivated) when defrost is selected, as the humidity reduction tends to improve defrost performance.

There's a similar design issue I've noticed particularly with clothes washers, where one style seems to specify the type of article you're washing: "knits", "delicates", "colors", "whites", and the other the specific wash conditions you want: water temperature, a

See: http://content.aolstatic.net/ProductImages/rvLarge/ZWG6141P_... (article descriptions)

vs. load size, temperature, options, and agitator settings: http://www.ajmadison.com/ajmadison/images/large/GTWP1800DWW_...

My observation is that I know the settings I want to apply, and where "outcomes" controls are specified, I've got to translate these into the settings I hope to achieve. What I prefer are options which allow me to select for settings, preferably along a range (e.g., heater intensity, fan power).

Another point is that in consumer goods, the distinctions between products very nearly always simply doesn't matter.

In a Starbucks world, there's a coffee roaster I love which has an exceptionally simple product line. Light roast. Dark roast. Regular. Decaffinated. And you can get your beans whole or ground if you like. But basically four choices. The beans are, of course, excellent.

I've elected for choice in many food purchases by avoiding mainstream grocery stores (the news late this week of P&G killing off a bunch of brands strikes me as comically irrelevant). While I've fewer "options" than MegaMonSantoFoods when shopping at Trader Joes, what I do have are generally simpler, less expensive, less processed, and healthier products. I've long since abandoned prepared breakfast cereals for oats (and add my own nuts, dried fruit, or other ingredients as I prefer). Fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs are generally non-branded. Store products for cleaning, or vinegar and baking soda (both of which are surprisingly difficult to find in straighforward bulk forms) work fine. And the costs are lower.

My personal sense is that branding jumped the shark somewhere in the 1970s to 1980s, though we're only just starting to be aware of this in a broader sense.




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