Monday, January 19, 2009

Choice-Induced Paralysis

A year or so ago, we took G to Chuck E. Cheese's. He was old enough to play a fair number of the games and we thought it would be a fun way to spend a winter afternoon.

For the most part, we were right and it was a nice family excursion. But we were somewhat surprised--or at least I was--with the difficulty G had in choosing what games he wanted to play. We had quite a few tokens, certainly more than enough for all of us to get our fill of video snowmobiling and ski-ball. But G nevertheless recognized that our resources, while plentiful, were limited and that any choice he made was an opportunity spent. You could see the tension on his face as he tried to figure out how best to allocate his tokens. A choice to play one game was a choice not to play another and since he didn't want to choose wrongly, it was very difficult to get him to make any choice at all.

There's no such problem when we go to our local pizza joint and G wants to play video bowling. There aren't any other options and so if he wants to play a game, that's what he gets: bowling. The lack of alternatives seems to free up the pleasure impulse and the problem isn't getting him to make a choice; it's getting him off the machine.

We typically value choice and options and on the whole, I think we should. But it often goes unrecognized that too many options can sometimes lead to a paralysis of the will. Without any basis on which to rank options--a value system that allows us to discern better or worse courses of action--we may just end up doing nothing and thereby wasting whatever resources we happen to have. All the video games seem equally good and so we just can't decide which one to play.

Faced with such a predicament, sustained reflection may seem like a waste of time: sitting around thinking isn't really "doing something" any more than fretting about what to do is "doing something." But it is in precisely these circumstances that we need reflection on our values: what we really think is important and what courses of action might best serve our ends. That's often the only way to decide which options to leave aside and which ones to pursue.

5 comments:

NonVoxPop said...

http://nudges.wordpress.com/
is a blog, related to a book, about "choice architecture." The blog is hit and miss, the idea is neat.

Leah & Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
L-dizzle said...

I like this. When I think about the future of Paul and my jobs and lives, I kind of hope that there is only one obvious option and that we don't have to make some crazy choice about where to go and what to do. Some of the best things that have happened to me were my only options.

AJK said...

I wrote this in response to some "paralysis" I was experiencing over a few days about what to work on. I definitely feel most productive when my tasks are clearly defined. But when I have time, I've discovered that I need to think clearly about my priorities and what tasks will best serve them. It helps . . . a lot.

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