aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Choice is a false god!
I’ve long complained about the tyranny of choice. For examples from just the past few years, see here, here, here, and here. My usual complaint is that more choice brings unhappiness and it takes up too much time.
As regular readers know well, I’m reading Dan Ariely’s excellent Predictably Irrational. It has a thing or two to say about choice. Yesterday John Tierney looked at some of it in a blog post titled The Price of Dithering:
The results are in from the Shapes Experiment, featuring a game in which Lab readers repeatedly chose between two shapes and scored points proportional to the area of the shape. Most of the players hurt their scores by spending too much agonizing over decisions that didn’t make much difference — and therein lies a lesson for making decisions in the real world, according to Dan Ariely, the researcher who ran the experiment.
Dr. Ariely, a cognitive psychologist who is a professor of behavioral economics at M.I.T., reports that the game was played more than 4,000 times by Lab readers. As they played, there were two basic situations they faced. Sometimes they had to choose between two shapes that quite similar in size — a difference in area of no more than 2 percent. Other times they had to choose between shapes that differed in area by 25 percent.
Since it was a timed game and you wanted to get through as many trials as possible, speed was of the essence. If you were going to spend time making a choice, it was better to to do it when there was a bigger payoff — when the shapes were dissimilar in size. But most Lab readers did just the reverse: 94 percent of the players spent more time on the similar choices than on the dissimilar choices. On the whole, they spent 64 percent of their time deciding between similar shapes, and only 36 percent of their time choosing between dissimilar shapes, Dr. Ariely reports.
“This means,” he says, “that almost everyone could have made more points if they were able to take the opportunity cost of time into account.” In real life, he says, people are even more prone to wasting time on trivial decisions because the options and consequences aren’t nearly as clear-cut as in that game.
We worship at the altar of choice and make
bad costly decisions as a consequence. Buy this book!
RELATED: This reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle is decidedly less enthusiastic about the book than I:
While Ariely’s stated goal is to understand the decision-making processes behind behavior ("yours, mine, and everybody else’s"), he may be overreaching in the applicability of his conclusions. “We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains,” he writes, but he presents no evidence of this causal relationship. It depends on his behavioral experiments being universal. The experiments he presents support the irrationality part of his argument, but I don’t buy the universal predictability of all their specific findings. While these experiments take place in California, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and so on, they rarely get off campus, and the experimental subjects (at least the ones he describes) are almost always university students.
That’s a specific demographic group that marketing analysts study closely and pitch their products to in ways that don’t work with other - especially older - consumers. Several of Ariely’s conclusions (the decisive role of image among peers when choosing food at a restaurant or the “irrational impulse to chase worthless options” in a game, for instance) could be quite different according to age or even income and social class. And that’s without even attempting to assess the experiment involving young men, Playboy magazines and a Saran Wrap-covered laptop.
And we wonder where violent kids come from
The gaming site for parents, WhatTheyPlay.com, runs a “Question of the Day” poll that asks visitors to the site (i.e. mostly parents) a question that usually reveals something about people’s general attitudes towards games. Recently, the poll asked “As a parent, which would you find most offensive in a video game?” The results, as you can see to the right, found that more parents would be okay with cursing or even a severed head in video games over hetero-sex and “two men kissing.” Yep, horrific violence just ain’t so bad compared to two adult sharing a passionate moment together… a Norwegian gaming site decided to run the same poll. Their results were almost the exact opposite, with 65.8% of people saying they’d be most offended by a severed head.
a BIG experiment…
...the Atlanta Ballet dances live with Big Boi. Performance end tomorrow. From the rehearsals:
AP Video. The NYTimes review:
At best, “big” has moments of fascinating intersection between the movement and the firecracker verbal delivery of Mr. Patton’s work. At worst, the dancers simply look like a rather sophisticated back-up troupe.
Alvin Ailey 2 will be in our town next week. At my age, more my speed.
We don’t need a conversation… Let’s debate!
Barack Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia last month was said to be the beginning of a “national conversation” on the subject. I was among those saying it.
Conversation is all well and good but this ain’t it.
On Fresh Air a couple weeks ago linguist Geoff Nunberg wondered what, exactly, a “national conversation” is - and when we started talking about them:
The phrase is meant to conjure up that famous Norman Rockwell painting of a New England town meeting, where ordinary citizens gather as equals to hash over the affairs of the day.
Back in the 1930s George Gallup claimed that polling in the modern media had recreated those meetings on a national scale. As he put it, the nation is literally in one great room. Of course when you get that many people talking in one room, it’s hard to tell if everybody is paying attention. But by the time the phrase national conversation entered the language in the 1970s, the simulated public forum had become the model for a new bunch of media formats. Jimmy Carter staged the first ersatz town meeting in the 1976 presidential campaign, the format that later found its Pavarotti in Bill Clinton.
As it happens, that was also when Phil Donahue was pioneering tabloid talk TV and when Larry King launched the first national radio call-in show. There was something reassuring about the idea of everybody participating in a vast, extended conversation, particularly for a country trying to get past the angry divisions of Vietnam in the ‘60s. As the alternative therapies of the era were teaching us, no conflict was so rancorous that it couldn’t be dispelled by open conversation, so long as people were honest about expressing their real feelings.
True, we probably shouldn’t be calling these discussions conversations at all. A genuine conversation has no purpose. It’s about the pleasure of merely circulating. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott described conversation as an unrehearsed intellectual venture. It has no determined course; it does not have a conclusion. And it’s always a little disconcerting when somebody calls for a conversation about a specific topic. `We have to have a little conversation about all those calls to Toledo.’ It sounds like an appeal for an open exchange of views, but you know that most of the script has already been written. [...]
Actually, what’s usually most informative in all this is the debate about whether to have those conversations in the first place. If you really want to know what Americans think about race, punch “national conversation” and “Obama’ into Google News or one of the blog search engines. You’ll get an earful. And the subject being race, the tone often falls short of what you’d call conversational. If we ever did get to the point where we could really conduct a national conversation about race, we probably wouldn’t need to.