“If you choose not to decide You still have made a choice” – Rush Freewill
One of the things that we believe makes us uniquely human is the concept of freewill; that we can rise above our base instincts and make choices based on things other than pure instinct. While there’s some question if that’s unique to humans, let’s stick with it for now.
Overall, we think choice is good. I can choose to eat cake for breakfast, or I can choose to eat a healthy breakfast. I can choose if I want get up early and exercise, or sleep in.
Sometimes we may think it’s hard to decide between two such things as in the examples above, but the truth is, it’s not that hard.
But, what happens when the choices aren’t nearly as simple. What happens when we sit down with a menu with 3 items versus 30 or even 100? We can become paralyzed. With 3 options, our odds of making a “wrong” decision is only 66%. I say “wrong”because it’s often purely subjective and may not necessarily have much impact. But when we have 100 different things to choose from, the odds of a “wrong” decision goes up to 99%. In other words, we’re faced with the concept that no matter what we do, we’re virtually guaranteed to make a “wrong” decision.
The Jam Experiment
One example of this effect was seen in what is often called the jam experiment. Simply put, when given the choice of 6 varieties of jam, consumers showed a bit less interest, but sales were higher. When the choice of 24 jams were presented, there was more interest, but sales actually dropped, significantly. People were apparently paralyzed by having too many choices.
Locally there’s an outdoor hamburger/hot-dog stand I like to frequent called Jack’s Drive In. People will stand in long lines, in all sorts of weather (especially on opening day, like this year when the line was 20 people deep and with the windchill it was probably about 20F!) One can quibble over the quality of the burgers and fries, but there’s no doubt they do a booming business. And part of the reason is because they have few choices and keep the line moving. This makes it far faster for people to order and faster to cook. With only a few choices, patrons don’t spend 5 minutes dithering over a menu.
Hint: If you’re ever in the area, simply tell them you want “Two burgers and a small french”. Second hint: No matter how hungry you are, don’t as a former co-worker once did, try “6 Burgers and a large french”. You will regret that particular choice.
Choices to Europe
What brought this particular post on was all the choices I’m facing in trying to plan our family vacation. It’s rather simple really, “we want to visit Europe”. But, I also am hoping to speak at SQL Saturday in Manchester, UK. And we want to visit London (where my cousin lives) and Paris. And we can fly out of the NYC area. Or Boston. Or possibly other areas if the price was cheaper enough. So suddenly what one would hope is a simple thing becomes very complicated. And of course every airline has their own website design, which complicates things.
Of course the simple choice would be not to fly. The second simplest would be not to care about cost. Of course neither of those work. So, I’m stuck in deciding between 24 types of jam. Wish me luck!
There’s a concept I teach people when I teach outdoor skills. If you’re going to be wrong, be confidently wrong. There’s two reasons for this. For one, people are more likely to follow a leader who appears to be confident and knows what they’re doing. This can lead to better group dynamics and a better outcome.
But the second, for example, if you’re lost is, if for whatever reason you choose NOT to stay in one place (which by the way is often the best choice, especially for children) is that if you make a plan and stick to it, you’re far more likely to get unlost. This isn’t just wishful thinking.
Imagine you’re lost and you decide, “I’m going to hike North!” And you start to hike north, and after 15 minutes you decide, “eh maybe that was the wrong decision. I should hike East!” And you do this for another 15 minutes, and then you decide, “Nah, now that I think about it, South is much better.” 15 minutes later you decide you’re going to the wrong way and West was the right way all along. An hour later, you’re back where you started. But, if you had decided to stick with North the entire time, an hour later, depending on your pace, terrain and other factors, you could be 2-4 miles further north. “So what?” you might ask. Well, take a look at a map of almost any part of the country. In most cases you’re less than 10 miles from some sort of road. If you’ve spent 3 hours hiking, in a single direction, you’ve probably hit a road, or a powerline or some other sign of civilization. (note this is NOT advice to wander in the woods if you get loss or a promise this will work anyplace. There are definitely places in the US this advice is bad advice). Also obviously, if you hit a gorge or other impassible geologic feature, you may have to change directions. Or you might get another clue (like hearing a chainsaw or engine or something human-caused in a specific direction).
So, if you’re going to make a choice, make it confidently. And don’t second-guess yourself until new, solid reasons come along.
So, keep your choices simple and stick to them.
And with that, I choose to stop typing now.