Previously: Choices are Bad
Last time, I gave two (related) reasons Choices are Bad: Choices Reduce Perceived Value and Choices Force You Into Choosing Mode. Despite not looking like much, these reasons are Serious Business. They can render us unable to enjoy, think or relax even when it might seem that everything is awesome. That’s what that song is about, really: how great things are, on every axis, when we let ourselves go with the flow and not get distracted.
The rabbit hole goes deeper. It gets much worse.
Choices Cost Willpower and Create Decision Fatigue
Willpower is a controversial topic, and laying out even my simple model would be beyond scope. What matters here is that in the short term, exercising willpower is a cost (whether or not such use has long term benefits). Most of the time, you would prefer to spend less willpower to get the same result.
Often making the otherwise right choice will require the spending of willpower. When you consciously think about eating another cookie, or checking your email, not doing so costs a non-zero amount of willpower. Making that choice over and over could end up not only being distracting via being in choosing mode, but also end up sapping your willpower.
In addition to willpower, Decision Fatigue is a thing as well. Making choices (decisions) is draining something else that is related to but not identical to willpower. At some point, decision fatigue makes further choices carry an increasing cost. Some people have this problem more often than others, but there is always the risk that this will happen to you.
There’s even a version of ‘I’ve made good choices all day, it’s all right to indulge now’ that can happen, which is related but different.
You Might Choose Wrong
Simple but important.
If you give someone a choice, there is always some chance they will choose wrong. Remember the third principle of economics: People are stupid. They also are often ignorant, or distracted, or don’t care, or lots of other things. Mistakes are made. No matter how obvious the choice, people will sometimes choose… poorly.
Thus, giving me a choice between a Snickers bar that I value at $1 and M&Ms I value at 60 cents doesn’t only force me into choosing mode, lower my perceived value and help create decision fatigue (and potentially cost willpower). It also risks that if I’m not paying attention or thinking clearly, I will choose the M&Ms, and that would be a tragedy.
Pictured: Someone who has chosen poorly.
You Will Choose Wrong
Often you have a decision in the future, and you have a reasonable expectation that when the time comes you will be likely to choose poorly. The reasons are myriad.
You might fear temptation or hyperbolic discouting. You know you shouldn’t have that snack now, or check Facebook, but you will later if given the chance, and you know it. Or you expect to reach a point where your journey gets harder before it gets easier, such as in an exercise program, and you are tempted to quit.
You might expect to be in a social situation where you face pressure to do the wrong thing, such as talking to a salesman, or drinking too much at a party.
You might expect to drink too much at a party, or otherwise be in an impaired state, and be unable to make good choices.
You might simply expect to forget what you currently know, or what you are thinking, or to overthink things, or not care.
You might have a choice where you would prefer result A to result B, but given a choice of A and B, you will still feel you must choose B. More on that later.
In all these situations and more, the choice is doing more than taxing your focus. The choice is going to get you.
Choices Create Buy-In
When forced to make a choice, humans then identify with that choice and need to justify it. Sometimes this is good, and can even be an explicit reason to make (or set up!) a given choice. Most of the time it causes identity to become larger in a bad way.
You suddenly think whatever you chose was a good idea, and are forced to adjust other beliefs to agree with that. This is especially dangerous when the choice is set up make you feel like you had a voice in the decision. Whichever option you chose, even if it was between two terrible restaurants, two cars that only differ by color, or voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, starts to seem like it was a good idea. You avoid taking actions or making statements that would contradict your choice. If you had only not had a choice in the matter, you would be free to believe, speak and act correctly later.
Choices Create Blame and Responsibility
Being blamed for things is obviously terrible, and being seen as responsible means you have to do things you could have chosen to do anyway, and if something goes wrong, as Kramer noted on Seinfeld, the first question anyone asks is “Who’s Responsible?” In addition, it means others will slack off, treating the situation as Someone Else’s Problem – you are responsible! I could explain at length, but we all instinctively know Responsibility Is Bad and Blame Is Bad. At a minimum, being held responsible involuntarily is bad, and being blamed involuntarily is very bad!
If you choose between a Snicker’s Bar and a pack of M&Ms, it is your fault there is no Snickers bar or it is your fault there are no M&Ms. If all you were offered was a Snicker’s bar, you’re the nice one who acquired candy.
Choices force to you to interact with the problem. Interacting with the problem then subjects you to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics (link is recommended if you haven’t read it). You are interacting with the problem, and therefore everything wrong with it is your fault, or at least everything you could possibly have done something about, even if that action would have been absurd. Even if all you did was help.
If you were so lucky as not to have a choice to do anything more to help, then you would be able to interact with the problem without being blamed for it, which would be much better.
You really don’t want the option to buy a better version you can’t afford. You might end up buying nothing.
You really don’t want the option to give away every last dollar you can spare to charity. You might end up giving nothing.
Choices Cause Paralysis
Without any choice you can justify – you could always do more, in some sense, or always potentially find something better – analysis paralysis sets in. If no choice it satisfactory, the default choice is often to do nothing at all, or sit around thinking and agonizing over things for far too long. This happens even if you know that taking a random reasonable option would be far better.
If you had no choice, or you had less choice such that what you actually want to do clearly dominated your other options, you would be able to take action.
Choices Are Communication
Just Saying What You Mean is Impossible. Every action you take speaks volumes.
If you don’t want to come to the party, you’d much rather not be invited than have to say no. Oh dear, it’s raining really hard. A shame we can’t make it.
You would much rather the cancer be inoperable than be given the chance to spend all your family’s money on a treatment that almost certainly won’t work and will definitely be painful, for fear of being seen as not caring or giving up.
You would like to sometimes not have access to your phone, so others couldn’t interrupt you all hours of the day with emails and texts.
Choices Require Justificaiton
I recently wrote a post that explored, among other things, the problem of when you know the right choice, but you don’t know how to justify that choice or explain your reasoning. There are a lot of reasons why this can be a problem.
Often we have reasons we can’t fully put into words, whether or not we should have to, and sometimes we don’t know the reason but we do know we have a bad feeling about this:
And yet, that phrase usually leads to the doing of the this in question.
Sometimes our reasons reveal information we need to keep secret, or reveal we know information we are not supposed to know, or which will be unpleasant to bring up. Sometimes everyone already knows, and we know everyone already knows, but we must prevent common knowledge.
Sometimes our reasons rely on information we cannot say out loud. Our society currently says that people who say or believe certain things, even once for a moment, are just awful and anyone who notices such a belief or behavior should notify the internet mobs post haste. Many of these things happen to be both true and central to life, which makes explicit reasoning and justification difficult.
Choices Prevent Commitment, Cooperation and Coordination
We’ve already noted how the choice to quit can destroy an exercise program or other plan; instead of deciding once it is a good idea, you must decide over and over again that it is a good idea. If you fail even once, that’s it. All your future selves get a vote, and if you get a tally of 79-1, you still lose. That’s terrible.
What’s worse is if there are two of you, and you’re trying to cooperate on a plan, knowing that a vote of 159-1 also loses. Can you count on the other person showing up, and toughing it out, or will they bail when given the chance? Should you therefore tough it out knowing they might quit? Will they, knowing you might quit on them first?
Now both of you have to constantly track the others’ choices, to make sure incentives align at every step, lest everything fall apart. Both of you need to keep fallback options, not only in case you need them, but to show you have them lest the other party use your lack of a fallback as leverage against you.
This process is more painful than people realize; in many situations it destroys most of the potential production/surplus/utility. Many, many otherwise good ideas, arguably most otherwise good ideas, will not work because trying to do the thing gives others leverage over you that they can’t give up, so they will reliably take all of your profits. In many cases, due to your sunk costs, they will take far more than all your profits.
Choosing To Stop
This post is an example. I could go on for a long time; this is far from an exhaustive list, but I need to stop somewhere or I’ll never get it published. Or it will get so long that no one will read it or know which points were important. Or both.
I Had No Choice!
Think about why “I Had No Choice!” is so often used. Technically we almost always have lots of choices, but most of those choices would be disastrous. You could give all you have to the poor. You could run naked through the city streets shouting about aliens. You could refuse to get out of bed for weeks on end. You could give the customer a full refund without a receipt. You could shoot that jerk right in the face.
And so on. Most of the time, these are not considered real choices because the consequences are so obviously bad, so we say I have no choice. This saves us from worrying about missing out on the option, and it protects us against blame. You aren’t signaling anything. You aren’t reducing anyone’s status. You aren’t letting anyone down. You’re doing the only thing you can. Which is good. Taking away choices is vital.
Others will respond with that awful accusation, “You Have/Had a Choice!” Their tone will often be quite unfriendly. You defend yourself. This isn’t on you. You insist: “I Do Not Have That Option, Sir or Madam!”
Because choices are really bad!