Wednesday, March 19, 2008

decisions, decisions.

i saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because i couldn't make up my mind which of the figs i would choose. i wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as i sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

sylvia plath
the bell jar

a couple of weeks ago the new york times published this account of dan ariely's new book predictably irrational. it's on one of my all-time favorite subjects-- how people who think of themselves as rational choosers actually make decisions based on impulse-- impulses neither grounded in rational processes nor resulting in rational behavior. i'm inclined to agree with the claim that people rationalize what they do more than do what they rationally ought.[1]

the article focuses on one of the handful of irrational impulses that ariely shows us to be consistently motivated by-- namely, the impulse to keep our options open. we will deplete our energies to keep many or a particular option(s) open even when there is no chance of pay off, and the costs are great.

ariely begins with a maximizing or means/end notion of rationality, like the one economists use: to behave rationally is to behave in such a way as to maximally attain your desired ends, whatever they may be. there are philosophers who think that desires themselves can be irrational-- that rationality should dictate not only how we attain our desired ends, but dictate their content. but putting that aside, i will assume that when ariely says a behavior is irrational he means only to say that we fail to behave in the sort of ways that would maximize our most general desires to be successful and satisfied. so the problem is that we're inefficient. we can recognize a good deal when we see it, but we can't seem to dismiss the other options from our mind and focus our energies, though that would be the rational thing to do. indecision!

we do this, according to ariely, because we are avoiding the immediate pain of loss.2 we hate to give up opportunities. problem is, every opportunity we take is a thousand we leave (or one, at least). so when we choose, there's always loss. the fear of that loss can keep us standing there, trying to hold all of the doors open, even when the best option is clear, or when any option would be equally worthy (and every single one of them better than havering). we want to live maximally satisfying lives, so we hate to give up a chance that might lead us that way-- we experience every chance given up as a loss, and our unwillingness to experience loss then motivates the very indecision that keeps us from making the choices that would, in turn, lead to our maximal satisfaction.

that, to the best of my understanding, is ariely's view. and i think that the first thing to be said is how astoundingly insightful it is. reading it, i was struck by what might best be described as an uncomfortable sense of recognition. i imagine that many others were similarly struck. and i will sit with that discomfort, and think on it, and i hope that they will, too. but i also have some problems.

first, he (or the nyt writer, at least) wants to distinguish between the desire to keep one's options open, and the desire to avoid the pain of loss. the importance of this distinction, i surmise, is that it might seem rational to sacrifice now in order to keep one's future fluid, but not rational that we should be unwilling to suffer a little loss now to minimize our losses, overall. but this is a trick distinction! to begin, i don't see how anyone could look within themselves and discover a true fact of the matter about which desire was the motivating one. the conscious desire to keep options open could be all tangled in a less conscious desire to avoid pain, or vice versa. more deeply, avoidance of pain never tells the whole story about anything-- the reason that people experience pain at all is because they evolved to, because avoiding those pain-causing things has some independent survival value. so even if people could pinpoint their own motives or the motives of others in these situations as explicitly pain-avoiding, there will be deeper explanations. and i imagine that ariely, in his book, takes a good shot at offering some of those deeper explanations. but i'm skeptical of over-confident assumptions about what psychological data (and the speculations of evolutionary psychologists) "means" about us. it's clear that we don't like letting doors close-- it's less clear to me why this is, or what it means.

i'm even more skeptical of tidy, fatherly conclusions about what it is we should do, given who we are. probably this unwillingness of mine to accept a clear answer only proves ariely's point-- but then, if it does, that's fine, because if that's what it means to be right, i'm not interested. anyway, i don't quite know how to formulate my discomfort with ariely's conclusions (as reported by the times), but i think there are two levels-- the first is a surface sort of discomfort with the fact that all of his advice seems to amount to "settle down. commit to one woman. don't take on too much." although i have been known, on occasion, to find this kind of advice tolerable, charming3 even, i do have an abiding skepticism of seemingly deep advice that merely reinscribes the status quo.

my second level of worry is more conceptual, and even less well formed. i once told LP that i don't understand when people say that they regret the things they didn't do rather than the things they did-- or, rather, that i didn't (and don't) understand how that's suppose to help me out in deciding what i should do in a given situation. because everything i do entails a mess of things i didn't do. no matter what i do, it will in hindsight be "what i did do", and the rest will be "what i didn't do", and maybe a regret. what seems clear in retrospect will not seem that way at the moment one is confronted with a choice, and what i'm suggesting is that this isn't just a matter of our epistemic limitation at the moment of choice confrontation-- not just a matter of being blinded in the moment to what will later (or from some other perspective) be visible. how we are blinded in the moment is certainly an important thing to consider-- centrally important-- but it may also be our retrospective view which is skewed-- projecting a certainty or fact of that matter onto a situation in which, at the time, there was no fact of the matter.

[1] i'm actually sympathetic to the idea that rationality alone has no content-- that there is nothing (or nothing much) that we can conclude we "ought" to do without figuring in a couple of basic sentiments and desires which are not themselves proper objects of rational scrutiny. but, still, it's one position that you could take

[2] the loss of a possibility! i promised myself that this post would have nothing whatsoever to do with possible worlds, but i will allow myself one footnote: lewis talks of learning about our world in terms of locating, among all of the logically possible worlds, which world is our own. given that we aren't laplacean demons, we can't be sure which possible world we live in-- there are a large number of possible worlds which, for all we know, might be our own. there are many possible people who, for all i know, i might be. there are many possible people who, for all i know, might be you. and as you and i go on being ourselves and events unfold and i learn more about us both, i learn that you and i aren't some of the people that it was possible we might be-- and sometimes i learn that you (or i!) might be someone that i hadn't imagined was possible. but, anyway, the point is that ariely seems to be saying that there is a real sense of loss that comes with eliminating possibilities, and yet eliminating (relevant) possibilities might be the best way of describing what it is we're doing when we learn the facts about who we are and the world we inhabit.

[3] see richard russo's 2004 commencement address.

1 comment:

Lowry said...

First, thank you for your generous reply to my questions about Mr. Lewis and his possible worlds. I'll have to read it four or five more times to say more . . .
Meanwhile, I was thinking about this posting and the question of regretting what you didn't do. It seems to me that such regret hinges on the conviction that there was another possible world and the door to it was open, but one did not walk through. I agree that this may seem clear only in retrospect, and one may (well) be mistaken in believing that the door was open.
How could an awareness of such possible future regrets help me in making some current decision? I think by pushing me to be more courageous, or in a sense more truthful, in choosing what, in fact, I want to choose. To quote Eudora Welty, "we are the breakers of our own hearts." But must it be so?
I believe, and I don't know if you'll find this sensible or deplorable, that choices which can be decided by a rational calculus are the easy ones. The real decisions in life cannot be made that way. Oh, I can hear your objections already to that sloppy use of the word "real." But I do think many critical, life-changing decisions are made on other than rational grounds and can only be made that way.
ever yours, LP