Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sheena Iyengar on choice

I bumped into this brilliant TED talk on choice by Sheena Iyengar via Munnu on g-reader. It's a talk that directly resonated with one of my topics of constant rumination, and I strongly recommend it.

This comes at a time when I need to make (what I think is) a very critical and important choice in my life; as a result, this talk was amazingly timely on multiple levels. Some thoughts:

- If her description of Japan is right, I think I'll be blissfully happy there! I absolutely, viscerally, totally detest choice; actually, I detest the process of making a choice even more. I'm programmed with a strong instinct to make sure to make the 'right' choice, and when I am not absolutely sure I am doing so, I get very frustrated. The sting of "What if?" thinking, and the current worry that I may face that sting later, is particularly unbearable, and I have a strong feeling this is a pre-programmed personality feature.

Although she briefly touched upon the topic of why some people might think this way ("Fear"), I think she could have gone further:

-At a somewhat trivial level like choosing between Coke and Pepsi, I think it's mostly right. To the choice-averse brigade, it simply doesn't matter because the differences are so minute, silly and irrelevant. I've been thought of as an ignorant hick one too many times when I ask for advice on buying a car. I say "My budget is X, tell me a good car to buy", and tone instantly becomes very delicate.

"What brand are you looking for?"
"I don't know, I just want a good one with good service"
"But all of them have decent service these days. What kind pickup/mileage/x do you want?"
"I don't know, just a normal regular car to go around, that's all"
"Ok... what kind of resale potential are you looking for in the next 3-4 years?"
"I don't even have the car yet, how do I know what I should do it with in 3-4 years?"

I firmly refuse to believe that "doing your research" on buying a silly thing like a car or a suit is at all useful! I am reminded of this comic Anush had shared a long while ago:

As a side note, this is one point where Apple absolutely scores over every other company. Very, very limited choice, but each product functions decently and mostly to expectations. 

-Elaborating on the "Fear" factor, I think it's a version of Buyer's Remorse. Personally, I find it very much more easier to make my peace with events whose causes are beyond my control, than events which I caused. It's not a question of evading responsibility, because that is a dishonest twisting of facts; This has a lot to do with a discomfort of being self-centered and needing an external, immutable thing, as in Alain de Botton's talk and DFW's essay.

-At a higher, more important level like choosing a career or country to live in, the difficulty lies in the fact that you never have enough information. A very major portion of your post-choice life is going to be determined by unknown unknowns, and there's no way you can include them in your analysis. So, you cannot know with any certainty about how good a choice it was! I've had times when I took really important decisions, and found out more game-changing data in one day after making the choice than a year of pre-choice analysis!

-An even more debilitating fact is that you are merely choosing between mental models of outcomes of choice, and nothing concrete. All kinds of fictions rule these mental models! There is really no meaning in attributing anything to a particular choice someone made, because it may have been made under completely different assumptions. This brings me to one of my favorite gripes: there is very little that can be learnt from one's own or other's experiences. "No man ever steps in the same river twice", etc. This pervasive nonsense about "learning experiences" gets on my nerves. That old fake Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”. Just this one curse would make that most fundamental of all human interactions, teaching and learning, quite worthless beyond the confines of academia. As Paul Getty said, “In times of rapid change, experience can be your worst enemy.”

A simple solution to this, as espoused by the Sunscreen song, "Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's". I was about to go do just that, when I bumped into a hurdle also covered in the self-same song: "If you succeed in doing this, tell me how." :P

-As a corollary, I will punch in the neck the next person who quotes with a smug, all-knowing air, "Have no expectations". I can jolly well have no expectations when I have nothing to think of, but if I'm making a choice between mental models, the only way it can be done is if I have expectations for each choice in front of me!

-Coming back to the talk, one very real problem that arises from those assumptions is a social wisdom that is quite perverse. "Leadership" is often associated with the ability to quickly choose; people who prefer a programmed, defined, 'secure' life are unfairly relegated as incapable.

-Boundless choice on a level of personal ethics also brings with it a very serious issue that there are no constraints. When faced with an unfamiliar situation, constructs like ethics, morals, conscience,  'character', etc. give guidelines that, above all, allow a man to rest assured that he took the right decision. I hold this to be the primary function, because it is impossible to talk of the consequences of an action and talk about these constructs on those terms (for example, it's silly to talk of a conscience as something that guides a man to do 'good'. What might seem very good today would probably turn out to be a horrific wrong tomorrow. The only thing a conscience does is to allow a man the satisfaction that he's done the right thing).

-In an old post of mine, Kaushal's comment had reminded me of an interesting and related idea. Issues with choice arise primarily from a conflict between 'I will make my life' and 'Let my life make me' attitudes. Of the hundreds of schools talking about Moksha and how to attain it, two stand in sharp relief in this context. One is called the 'Markata kishori nyaaya' and the other 'Marjaara kishori nyaaya'. 'Markata kishori nyaya' literally means 'Monkey-child procedure'. A baby monkey holds on very hard to its mother as it jumps around, and the hold is thought to be so strong that it is even immortalized in metaphor - 'kapi mushti' or 'monkey fist' means a very strong grip. The baby monkey is actively involved in shaping and controlling its life.

'Maarjaara kishori nyaaya' literally means 'Cat child procedure'. A kitten wouldn't even have its eyes open when its mother catches it by the scruff and jumps about. It simply doesn't (cannot?) care, and lets its mother take it wherever it pleases. The question these raise is, is Moksha something that should be actively pursued, or do you let the quest take over you?

I guess this little conundrum exists even in the quest for Supreme, and not just in our silly little life-choices :-)


I found her final message somewhat tame and not particularly insightful, but whole talk was still great.

Maybe another way to look at choice-averse people is to think of them as people desiring choice at a 'higher' level : they want the choice of having choices only when they want them!



Ananth said...

To play Devil's advocate here:

I think in your essay, and in her talk, there are two fundamentally different, but related ideas being conflated.

1. In the US, there is an overabundance of superfluous choice which actually harms us because there is too much noise in the information.

2. There are some people, like you say, prefer a "programmed life" to those with more choices.

It is quite clear that point 1 is a very valid concern. But I am not so sure about point 2.

It might seem a tad bit of a generalization, but I feel that choice-averse people, as in (2) *are* in some sense evading responsibility because in a contrapositive sense, one must consider a world where you have lesser choices and try to imagine if everyone can achieve "to their fullest potential". If it turns out that the lack of choice actually hampers growth (be it technology, personal, spiritual, etc.) then one must not compromise it for the sake of a few who find choice overwhelming.

I think that you hit the nail on the head with the idea of being satisfied with having done the right thing. Some people have the ability to look at a limited set of choices, as constrained by space and time, spend what they deem a sufficient amount of time processing the information, and then never look back, irrespective of your objection of how our mental models have little to do with what happens. I think, and personally this is true, some people can be satisfied with their choice conditioned on the information and experience they had.

The way to get better that this is to either process information better, or to improve your experience to build better models of the outcomes, or lower your standards of self-satisfaction.

The first and second paths are what are tied to leadership skills, and in my opinion is a capability that some people might inherently lack, but can build up through practice. The third is what you mention as "have no expectations", a very Zen, or Stoic, but perhaps ultimately a nihilistic view of things. Of course, there is a fourth way of being satisfied, and that is rationalizing your way out of troubled spots, which requires sometimes a tour de force of logic, but it is something I've found us engineers to be particularly good at.

PS: I've not read the two essays you linked about fear, so I shall not comment. And I am still trying to understand how her experiment reveals insights about the effects of choice beyond cultural implications. It is akin to comparing the Western concept of dating to the Indian concept of arranged marriages and then deduce that Indians on the whole think more choices for your SO is bad, when it is primarily a cultural issue rather than an issue involving choice.

Kmukund87 said...

Havent read your post fully yet, but I have to go now and thought I will just leave this comment here.
I just feel that the concept of more choices leads to better decisions holds good if you are a machine capable of grasping the details of a 1000 varieties. But as humans, we get confused and irritated after we see 10 choices - and choices that didnt show any improvement when looked from one after the other.
Companies and organizations on the other hand have shareholders forcing the CEO and all the employees of the companies to make the best decision and therefore force the employees to sit and look at all the thousand choices to make the best one.
It is the reason why Apple is still the consumers' company and Dell/IBM fits the industry model where they make a 100 different computers for the companies to choose.
Imagine if you are running a company and you refuse to look at all the choices and end up choosing something that affects the profits. The machines above will kick you.

Gowtham Kumar said...

Nice post. You write pretty clearly. I am afraid though that I have already chosen uncertainty. A secure life eventually gets boring and I have been hard-wired in my brain to do anything to escape that monotonicity of a choice-free life. Making decisions under uncertainty and imperfect instructions is a quality that distinguishes humans from a computer. (The irony though is that people call me a robot.)

Dileep said...

You ARE familiar with the Barry Schwartz TED talk right?


arjun said...

FYI, another interesting read --http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bschwar1/Sci.Amer.pdf
Regarding the moksha concept- when you reach a stage where you wont start thinking about your own/stop having desire of any kind-thats when you can get moksha-according to vedic scriptures we have around 84lacs incarnations- to get out of this loop, you need to attain moksha( apparently we need to get out of that loop to go to heaven- the purpose of moksha- where the energy forms are in stabilised state meaning that there is no negative form of energy like pain/suffering).
someone had argued with me that having no desire itself is a desire- i think its more of feelinglessness of that desire that makes you gain moksha- desire is the thing that keeps you attached to that loop- when you get dissociated/disattached to anything then you will reach heaven! (i am sorry if you are confused/finding it meaningless, just wanted to share it :) )

KVM said...

Your accusation of conflation is valid in some contexts; but let me explain how I look at it: I do NOT write anything here in the normative sense, or what people 'should' do. I also distrust most research, _especially_ social scientific research like hers, and don't believe anything at all can be said of a population. Whatever I've written are my raw opinions on how _I_ see things affecting me; Some of her conclusions seemed remarkably close to some of mine, so I wrote about them. So this is a highly personal and almost solipsistic post, and I do not want to assert or prove a statement about US society or whether choice should be removed. I don't like choice, that's all..When I look at it that way, I see no conflation between 1 and 2, and no compromise because I'm not asking anyone to do anything. The question of responsibility comes up when other people's stuff is at stake, and I do not bring that up here.

I agree with what you say about ways to get better at it, but do not see it linked with leadership skills. I think such skills are very poorly defined and can be mended to fit any theory..the fourth is definitely interesting, because it is also the only path that wonders if the _game itself_, and not just the present move, is worth it :-)

Re the PS, I wouldn't trust the 'experiments' too much. They are nice to illustrate a point, but not prove it. I don't even agree with the idea of using children as if they are somehow one meta level 'lower' than us. That's totally fake, but it does show the point being made in greater detail.

Very good example of Indian arranged marriages!

KVM said...

Like the blind led by the blind :-)

KVM said...

Yes, I am. I found this to be one more opportunity to vent my thoughts, that's all :-)

Ananth said...

Alright. If it is personal then there's little else I can stay.

By "such skills" you mean leadership skills? If so, then you're right in that it is poorly defined. But I think the kind of skills that make us "good at choosing" aren't ill-defined.

And reg. the experiment, my understanding is that it fundamentally boils down to individualism vs. collectivism, which are two fundamentally differing philosophies, which may never be reconciled. Anyone who believes strongly in individualism must read up and ponder about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_of_anarchy

KVM said...

Yes, I meant leadership skills. Good at choosing - well one can go as deep as one pleases. Good at choosing between what to eat for lunch, or career decisions?

Price of Anarchy is very cool - thanks for the pointer. And yeah, one look at Silk Board junction in the evening is enough to given any individualist thinker the jitters :)

Atulbv said...

I think that any debate about choice occurs when you attach a sense of responsibility to it, in the sense that , if you are backing out of a choice..or you dont want to choose, then you are becoming irresponsible. As you have rightly pointed out, it eventually boils down to a sense of satisfaction, but it is mostly instant gratification if you are satisfied as soon as you make a choice. If you dont attach the importance of cause to your actions, then you will not enjoy choice and it will be an irritant if you are asked to make one. However, if you start pondering about further cascading consequences when you pick one instead of the other, you feel that you are left with limited choice and want more options! Is'nt that ironic and is'nt that which happens usually in our lives? For the things that matter most to you, you almost always have limited choice and if your choice does not work out well, you dont blame your choice but the lack of other options. As i said, if you dont attach responsibility or interest to your choice, it simply will not matter what you have picked for now.
About having no expectations, boy do i totally agree with you...i was suggested to do that by someone i absolutely venerate but from the past 3 years, i simply cannot get the logic behind it, fine you can go without expectation to a movie perhaps but not much anything else remains detached from expectations, things dear to you always have a price tag of satisfaction, and if you are not satisfied, then you did expect..infact even if you are satisfied, you still expected and met your expectations!
And when you speak of moksha, do i hear a faint thought of accept that some density awaits you or create your own...though simply following pre ordained actions will trouble any free thinking man.

Spranesh said...

A minor point, but I thought I should make it. I interpret, the "No expectations" (like in the Gita) as,

Have your expectations. Work for a cause. But do not attach your emotional balance to the final result. In the end, one must realise that they cannot and do not control outcomes irrespective of how individualistic or proactive our society gets.

In another sense, it is fine to plug your variables into your equations of causal effects, but be aware of the many unknowns and do not be disappointed if those unknowns are the basis for all solutions spaces.

Easier said than done, I know. :-). I have my issues with choices, just like you. I have been trying to get over the "What if?" syndrome too.

As a tangent, I have come to realise that societal constructs (unfortunately) hold high the "(wo)man of the now". As you say, people like others who make quick decisions, without any sense of where they might lead. If all goes well, the "leader" is praised, else he is sympathized with for the many unknowns that got in his way. There are two ways to looking at this - that these people (who are "lead"), do not realise that their leader made no effort to bound the unknowns; or that these people realise how tough unknowns can be. I find people (who are lead) to be mostly of the former.

A metaphor has helped me understand this a little. Imagine a ship in a storm at night - tossed and turned by the waves. The sailors have no sense of direction anymore. The captain (secretly) spins a bottle, and says, "North is that-a way". A quick, hasty decision. The ship sails for ages. The sailors later find that they are in the wrong direction (mostly when the storm has subsided). I wouldn't be surprised if the sailors forgave their captain, for his decision. It again stems from the fact people want decisions made, routes taken (even if they are wrong in the future).

(I hope you dont throw a fist at me for justifying, "no expectations").

s said...

Finally (saw the talk and) read this.

The talk, well… good stuff (except for the part at the end where she waxes poetically about choice without saying anything), but no major impressions here, as it's late at night I've seen some of it before. :-)

IMHO the best way of looking at it, as Joel Spolsky has said (and keeps saying), is just this: Every time a choice is provided, one is being asked to make a decision. And no one likes making decisions about things one doesn't care about. Further, (you and I agree, but not everyone does) no one should be asked to make a decision they aren't qualified to make.

On the other hand, for things that one does care about, more choice is usually good! (Sometimes even when it's just pseudovariety, as with soft drinks.) So although I may not care about the zillion options for coffee or cars, others do. So as far as whether choice "should" exist, it's generally good.

The trouble is with the pressure to make good choices, not choice itself. Once you realise that it's not possible to choose too well, this goes away, as well as potential regret at not having made the right choice. So the way out is not to evade responsibility of making choices when the result does matter (it doesn't matter so often, really), but to just give it a shot, and do best as one can, and give up. :-)

So though I agree with you that it's silly to worry too much about unimportant things like cars or suits (except in America where people think of the choices they make as a continual project of self-definition, in all things from coffee to cars to music!), I don't think a general notion like "choice-averse" is worth holding; it's just rationally avoiding the unimportant task of making decisions on things one doesn't care about.

[I'll say nothing about your unreasonable all-or-nothing ideas about learning experiences and conscience. :P]

BTW, arranged marriage is a great example IMHO of the remarks about choice! The reason marriages in India last longer cannot be explained by saying that it's because divorce is taboo (that's a bit circular and incomplete), but because the very idea of marriage is different. It's obvious that in an arranged marriage you may not find the "perfect person": so arranged marriage rests on the premise that it's ok to be married to a less-than-perfect person, that marriage is about making a certain commitment and building on it. Under the modern notion where marriage is to be based on the accident of falling in love, it stands to reason that the marriage must disintegrate as soon as one falls out of love (which is a phenomenon as natural and unpredictable as falling in love). So although there are quite a few unhappy or merely lukewarm arranged marriages, it does not seem on the whole worse a system than one based on unreasonable expectations about an ideal person existing, of being forever in love, with its consequent phenomena of serial monogamy and/or constant regret at possibly having made a suboptimal choice.

KVM said...

Thanks for the long comment.. and yes, in the general interests of fair play, someone should stop you from finding awesome stuff on an average 3 years before the rest of us :)

Sposky's view is very nice - caring is what makes all the difference. There's another layer that seems to be missing, though, about a kind of asymmetry in caring about different outcomes: I want to buy a DVD player. I don't care about almost any of the advertised features, but the one thing I do care about is that it shouldn't fail in a month. Now apparently, this amount of caring is 'not enough' to help endure making the choice among the 300 odd players available, but is enough to cause heartburn when it does fail. Most of my gripe with choice comes because of this.

The pressure to make good choices - wholly agree. Absolutely! Maybe maturity is all about converting all measures of progress into internal ones. The more mature one is, the less one cares about external metrics, and the more one is able to be at peace with the uncertainties in one's choice.

Unreasonable all-or-nothing ideas: LOL, just you wait till you are forced to spin a failed office-coup as a 'intense learning experience about team-play', sir, and then we'll speak about reason and the lack thereof :P

Very nice example about arranged marriage. If both partners are mature enough to understand that, it really can be very sweet.

KVM said...

Ah, 'do not be disappointed' - if only I held that power :)

I understand the spirit - and yes, I guess it takes practice.

The ship example is nice - that's how most of the corporate world runs, anyway. Maybe a way to attain peace with oneself is not to attach too much importance to people praising or denouncing other people.

KVM said...

Choices that matter to you - very nice, see Shreevatsa's comment above about Sposky..

All glory to those who bash No Expectations :)

Moksha - just give it to me already! :) Free-thinking man.. uh oh, we'll get into a lot of trouble if we go that away, let's drink our soma and chill :)

KVM said...

Yes.. the trick seems to be to not want it, or at least act like it :)

KVM said...

You say this now, but how do you know you won't want to choose a 'secure' and 'boring' life later on? The move from secure to uncertain is easy, the opposite is difficult.

Dinesh said...

Nice blogpost and rich and meaningful discussion in the comments section.