Choosing isn’t hard.

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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182 Responses

  1. Vikram Bath says:

    Note: I have no opinion about privatizing Social Security. I only claim that the evidence presented in the NYTimes piece was poorly selected.Report

    • Morgan Warstler in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      This suggests an idea though, that in the age of hyper text, the researcher, being referenced, really ought to be linked, so theat they are essentially invited to rate the use of their research.

      Even via search alerts, managed by a third party for researchers, think of it like politifact without the editorial bias, the researchers themselves could support of demolish the use of their research.

      This would quickly fix professionally paid reporters and thinkers, forcing them to maintain their own credibility, to bend to the truer nature of the research.Report

      • That’d be a start. In the case of that last NYTimes piece though, the writer in question *is* one of the researchers. Barry Schwartz is a professor at Swarthmore. He’s a good researcher. He just got carried away when writing for the Times.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      Aaarrgh, Satan’s gonads! It’s Morgan Warstler come to sell us a few unemployed folks.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    AI has to deal with overchoice all the time. It’s called weak-field terminus, often leading to a no-decision output. Two sorts of problem domains: in one, the system must make a choice, in the other, a decision is made only when a strong enough pathway is established.

    Most consumer decisions are predicated on previous choices. My grandmother liked Roman Meal Bread. I see a loaf of it and my mind is returned to her kitchen, instantly. I don’t buy Roman Meal, I like some of these other whole grain breads better, but I suppose my taste for whole grain bread goes back to her.

    People make decisions for the damnedest reasons and few of them are rational. Price plays a surprisingly small part of the decision making process. That’s been known for centuries. Gave rise to the celebrity endorsement and from thence to the Madison Avenue approach to advertising. But getting people to eat something, actually put it in their pie hole, the Sample Tray is a very ancient and effective technique. If they’ve never eaten it, they’ll never buy it. Advertising calls it Impressions and they’re counted in Google Adwords.

    The problem with these overchoice experiments can be played out in AI. In a weak field, some pathways grow, like cracks develop in frangible materials. Though the “decider” has not made a choice today, he has consumed some of your product, that’s the important part. If he has not consumed a sample of every offering, that’s of little importance, he’s aware of your brand. Pathways have been formed. Nobody mastered the quadratic equation the first time through: learning is a process of repetition.

    Most adults don’t make such choices on the spot, they’ll evaluate their choices and return to make a decision later. Part of being an adult is the ability to defer gratification, with the understanding such immediate choices are seldom wise ones. To this end, supermarkets will put in candy and junk food, little refrigerators with sugary drinks at the checkout line, down where little children can get at them, harassing their parents to make the Impulse Purchase.

    Notice, too, how the store stocks candy on the regular shelves, up where the adults can get at them and the children can’t.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to BlaiseP says:

      > weak-field terminus

      I yahooed this, and it gave me nothing. Can you provide a link?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        It’s my own term. It derives from Gauss’ Law and Maxwell’s First Field Equation. In an AI system, Hebbian Learning arises from two forces: connection plasticity and strength of connections. They’re often called “weights” which doesn’t carry enough freight for me. I consider these connections to be fields: they obey the same laws.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Details here, though I presume you probably know all this from the physics side. I’m extending it into neural networks,Report

      • morat20 in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Hmm. Neural networks. I prefer genetic programming myself (which is entirely because I find the concept far more interesting, not because of some perceived superiority) but my experience with machine learning has been basically “Some things work better for some classes of problems, others for others”.

        Neural networks are fun though, although I prefer (being conservative in that way, I suppose) to lean towards your “a decision is only made when a strong enough pathway is found”.

        That might be by GP interest showing up again, since I tend to default to a fitness/strength oriented approach.Report

      • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        google gdstrb() [it’s a song]
        Let me know what you think 😉Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Genetic programming is just now coming into its own. Fascinating field. I did something years ago which resembled genetic programming, winnowing through trading strategies for commodities futures.

        Here it gets dodgy and I would later resign in disgust over what my boss was doing with the results. Nonetheless, here goes:

        Buy low, sell high. The trick is to get in and out of markets without getting skinned. You can enter either long or short, or many variants thereof, technical traders have a whole zoo of these mechanisms. The only sensible one is to enter at market, establishing two stops, a risk stop and a profit stop, thus establishing discipline upon the trader.

        Entering at market is easy. You’ll get in. But establishing the correct risk and profit stops is hard. You may not want to get out when the strategy tells you to leave. Each market exhibits its own behaviours. Some, like precious metals, exhibit high-beta volatility. Others are long-trending markets.

        We’d compose hundreds of tests, setting up various parameters and set them up to run against historical market data overnight. We’d come in the next day and pick the best-of-breed. But often, we’d take losers and set them up to run against different markets. Surprisingly, many of them would do very well.

        I won’t go into how my boss began to misrepresent what we were doing and trying to predict the past. It got stinkier by the day until at last I left. Good thing, too. Couple of his clients went to prison.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I’ve done GP work with commodities futures. It’s an excellent place to play — data is cheap, plentiful, and complete. Pick up, oh, five or six years of data, divide it into test and training sets, and you can get a lot of work done without worrying about whether your data set is too sparse. (or breaking your wallet).

        I DO have a rather nifty idea on back burner that I think would seriously mitigate local minima problems when searching the solution space. Not get rid of or prevent, but basically notice and mitigate.

        Hey, it’s what I do for fun sometimes.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        If memory serves, you’ve also done work with vision systems. I haven’t done any of that recently but I’m toying with the Kinect APIs, which seem like a useful avenue. Vision systems were horribly light-dependent when I was working on them. Maybe things have improved somewhat. Probably have.

        I’ve heard it called the Von Neumann Crux, though I have no proof Von Neumann ever said it. Goes something like this: computing systems will improve as varies improvement to their inputs. We’ve got all this wonderful hardware and in many ways, the coding paradigms haven’t kept up. My own philosophy trends toward Quine. For all his shortcomings, and he’s been superseded in many quarters, perhaps Chris can speak to this, I still think Quine was asking the right questions. We need a better frame of reference and it will come from the philosophers first.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I swear there are times I learn more about machine learning in the comments here then I ever did in college.Report

  3. J@m3z Aitch says:

    I would add that choice overload can be mitigated simply through learning to deal with it, or finding some simple factor on which to break a tie when one lacks a clear preference. E.g.,

    My daughter tended to be overwhelmed by choices when we first started letting her make her own choices at stores. Each time she looked at one item, she’d look back at another and notice its appeal all over again, going ’round and ’round among a set of alternatives. But I kept pointing out to her that obviously she liked all of them, so any one of them would probably be satisfying, and by the time we got home she would probably have forgotten about the others. Eventually she came to realize and internalize this, and her decision-making time in such cases dropped dramatically. (I have something of the same problem in the pasta sauce section of the grocery store, which has a ridiculous amount of choices. I scan until I find something that sounds good for that day’s meal, then stop scanning, instead of looking for “the best” sauce. Simonian satisficing at its simplest.)

    In another case I was stuck in a gas station aisle behind a guy who was frozen in choice between two flavors of Doritos. He apologized for blocking me way and said “I’ve never tried either of these, and I can’t decide which one to get.” After a few seconds of thought, I pointed at one and said, “Get that one.” He looked at me in surprise and asked, “Is it good?” I said, “I don’t know, but you don’t know if it’s better or worse than the other variety, so it doesn’t matter which one you get, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of being right either way.” He thought about it for a second, then said, “You’re right,” and bought that one. He could of course have done this for himself by flipping a coin, or doing eeny meeny minee moe.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      Just so. When a network has reached a no-decision impasse, most commonly seen in the early phases of the development of an expert system, the expert forces a decision. Thereafter, the system might continue to reach a few deadlocks on that same pathway, but presented with those exact terms, the system evaluates the same way again.

      But there’s a down side to all this: the system can become overtrained, “brittle” we call it. You never want a system to reach a conclusion before evaluating all the terms. We see this in people who can never be convinced to try anything new. In AI, the “stuck in a rut” phenomenon is not a metaphor. It’s an actual condition and you can examine the ruts.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Yes. With people we often call it overlearning, but it’s exactly the same thing. It can create an inability to consider new options on their own merits. Effects can range from the merely silly (like my sister refusing to try any food she doesn’t already know she likes) to the catastrophic (responding to all new emergencies in exactly the same way as past emergencies, even if they’re substantially different).Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to BlaiseP says:

        There’s overlearning, and then there’s overconstrained (although these are really the same thing.)

        When children refuse to eat anything that isn’t “white food” (chicken nuggets and french fries, plain cheese pizza with no burned spots, bagels and squeeze-packet cream cheese, vanilla ice cream) it’s not because they can’t decide when presented with more options; it’s because, at some point in the past, there was a huge fight over eating some type of food they didn’t like the taste of. So now, anything that has a taste other than “salt” or “sugar” is suspect, because if they don’t like it, their parents might get angry.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Over time, I’ve come to reject the Expert System paradigm, or at least severely amend and refactor it. Let’s suppose you were (and I’m sure you’re not) the sort of doctrinaire teacher who wouldn’t confine himself to the subject and took to preachin’ your own personal doctrines. Common enough failure in teachers. Sure you’ve seen it your entire professional career, a terribly ugly thing.

        But, and I’m equally sure you have asked this to your students “What principles can we apply to this example?”

        When I build a system, my only goal is to enforce policy in the form of what I call a Verdict. Push an application in the hole, gather up the credit reports, apply the policy rules and the system will return a Verdict. Not a sentence, just a verdict. “Though this applicant earns [lots of money] he also carries 80% of that amount as revolving debt. As such, he should not be given a loan.”

        The underwriter could override the Verdict and merely offer a higher interest rate on the loan given that the loan is for a new car, which could be repossessed. Not always the wisest decision, but it’s not the Expert System making it.

        If some people won’t try new things, others fail to learn from past failure. So the guy makes a lot of money — he carries a lot of revolving credit. Greed might motivate the lender to offer the loan, short-sighted behaviour leads both the lender and the borrower into disaster. It’s not merely the principle of the thing, it’s the interest, too, to make a very bad pun.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        “Fish or cut bait” arose from tuna fishing. When you’re fishing for tuna with poles, you run into a school of them. You’re catching them one right after the other, throwing them onto the deck. It’s hard work and when it’s time to fish, everyone runs to the gunwales to seize the opportunity.

        The bait still needs to be cut and it’s a lousy job. But it’s not time-critical, as is the fishing part. So if you don’t step and do the needful when your services are needed, there’s another job for you. Cutting bait.Report

    • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      Most people make stupid choices, without considering most of the parameters for making an optimal decision.
      This is particularly true of high-ticket items, which people then proceed to justify to themselves.

      I can cite dollar value cost of “splurging” on my house (which is far less than a straight comparison of housing values would suggest, as I don’t need a car).Report

    • I think it’s worth also considering how important the decision is after all, what are the returns to identifying the best option, and what avenues there are to gain more information.

      For a lot of stuff you mention, the decision isn’t really that important anyway. This was true of the jam experiment too. Ultimately, they are all heavily sugared fruits of different sorts. They could probably just pick one. Additionally, if they happen to like black kiwi better than red currant but pick the latter rather than the former, it is unlikely to make much difference in their lives. A bad choice is not harmful.

      If you do actually face an important decision, it’s worthwhile asking what information you can get and deciding what you will do with that information before actually locating it so that when you get the information, your choice will have already been made. (If you wait until collection, you might just spark another round of indecision.)Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Agreed. Fortunately, most of the decisions we make in our lives aren’t actually that important. But for the ones that are, having a stranger come up to you and say, “choose X” is probably a bad decision strategy.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Jellies and jams are a horrible way to test decision making because for most people they are comfort foods, used on toast or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You can’t just change someone’s comfort food to guava-apricot-termite puree on a whim.Report

      • The guava-apricot-termite puree is awful. I was raised on boysenberry-earthworm and I’ll stick with it, thanks.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        There is also the issue of decision fatigue, i.e. not that a person is tired from making too many decision/choices, but that a person who is physically/mentally exhausted/not eating well/under a lot of stress will have a harder time making decisions. Especially if the decisions are high stress ones (which bill to pay versus buying enough food, etc.).

        I think there was a post or long comment thread about this some time ago.

        Perhaps the Germans have other factors which reduce their decision fatigue relative to people in Menlo Park?Report

      • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        possibly they just eat jam less, so have less of a fixed preference for the ‘familiar’ (and not present) oneReport

    • Kazzy in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


      As you note with your daughter, there is a certain developmental process to this. Adults who struggle with choice likely have not gained the requisite skills to be effective choosers.

      As for the adult with the Doritos, it seemed he was struggling not with choice itself, but some things that often accompany choice: regret and risk. I’m not sure if we should categorize people who want to avoid regret or risk as poor at choosing as much as we should categorize them as risk-averse or something similar. Yes, the manifestation of that is a difficulty with choices, but the guy obviously made a series of choices just to get into that situation, including deciding that he wanted some form of Doritos and that it would be one of the two he was holding. I’d venture to guess he didn’t want to end up with a poor Dorito experience* and left wondering what the other one would have been like.

      * As discussed before, all Dorito experiences, left unconstrained, end poorly.Report

  4. Chris says:

    I’m just going to say Buridan’s Ass, because I take every opportunity to do so. Buridan’s Ass.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Chris says:

      Buridan was an ass to put his donkey in such a position.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Chris says:

      For the audience,

      It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.


    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Chris says:

      Not that I’d critique the fun of saying Buridan’s ass, but I always find it much ado about nothing. Decision theorists have this one figured out. If you’re truly ambivalent between two choices–they are equally good–being unable to choose between them is not what is required by the assumption of rationality. That is, allowing oneself to suffer a great cost because the available gains are indistinguishable from one another is clearly an irrational act. Instead, choosing randomly, or choosing based on any wholly irrelevant factor (if it’s morning I’ll choose the hay on the left, if it’s afternoon I’ll choose the hay on the right) is what a rational person does.

      It is an interesting quirk that rationality in that case requires utilizing what is, strictly speaking, an irrational calculus, but it’s not really of any significance beyond being an interesting quirk. We’ve taken a theory and found its test case, an extreme that is logically possible but realistically a highly implausible event, and found that there’s something a bit weird in that case, but something that doesn’t really strike at the essential value of the theory. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be possible with all theories.

      It’s just that most such test cases don’t have as fun a name as Buridan’s ass, whose great value is that it brings out the inner Beavis in all of us (or at least in folks like Chris and me).Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        The donkey will die quicker if he’s dehydrated than starving. We know the donkey will go for the water on that basis.

        Now if Buridan’s Ass was too weak to reach either of the pails, which one would you push up to his muzzle? Both.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Party pooper!

        Coincidentally, I was actually thinking about writing a post on intertemporal choice and diversification bias, which is an obviously related phenomenon, but real. And I was going to do so just so that I could say Buridan’s Ass in a post. If I do write it, you are not invited to that comment thread!Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        The donkey will die quicker if he’s dehydrated than starving

        We can always refine the example further. E.g., it has been without food longer than it has been without water, so it will die from either starvation or dehydration in an equal amount of time.

        Of course that just means we’ve made the case even more abstract and implausible, further weakening–I’d argue–its importance.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I don’t think it’s meant to be about an actual donkey.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        If I do write it, you are not invited to that comment thread!

        Since when have I ever waited for an invitation to comment? 😉

        Please do write it. I’m sure I’ll be interested, and probably comment favorably, with or without an invite.Report

      • George Turner in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        What the donkey is actually doing is occupying the space equidistant between the hay and the water, approaching that point from where ever he previously was standing. So he’s walked from one prime area to the most likely place for a future road intersection, and thus stands at the place with the highest potential value for commercial real-estate development. Eventually a developer will approach the donkey with a lucrative offer, and then the donkey can take the money and retire to the Bahamas.

        The donkey isn’t stupid, the theoreticians are.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I don’t think it’s meant to be about an actual donkey.

        But is it meant to be about actual choices?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        There is a specific case where Buridan’s Ass might be applied. I’m sending the arm of a pick and place robot out to a specific set of coordinates on a board. I’ve implemented the coordinate set in floating point numbers, thus creating a preposterously long series of digits to the right of the decimal point.

        The arm approaches the destination, sending back its current coordinates. It’s a tiny distance short of its destination coordinates. The control system sends it slightly farther at its maximum resolution — and overshoots the destination by a equally-tiny distance.

        If the control system doesn’t have a Good Enough comparator, it will immediately return the arm to its previous position, equally short of the target. It’s called the Ko Fight. The game of Go disallows such moves. Chess limits the number of repeated moves to three, creating a Draw.

        In robotics, it’s called hysteresis. The robot can destroy itself if the condition persists.

        The real-world Buridan’s Ass doesn’t lock the ass into paralysis. It runs him to death, going back and forth between the two pails.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        No, I don’t think it’s meant to be about an actual choice, either. I think it’s simply meant to illustrate a paradox of a mostly obsolete theory of choice. Choosing randomly or arbitrarily or however you want to describe “just pick one already!”, which is to say a-rationally, isn’t without philosophical consequences, but they’re consequences that most of us have no problem accepting.

        I brought it up because when faced with a bunch of jellies that you don’t know, as in the poorly constructed experiment that Vikram’s criticizing in the OP, you’re essentially faced with a sort of Buridan’s scenario: all of these choices are equally unknown to me, what the hell should I do?Report

      • I want to stress that I am not criticizing the experiment. Zebras do exist, and it is the responsibility of researchers to find out where they are and write about them, which is what these studies have done. I don’t start being critical until the last Times link in which the existence of zebras is taken to mean that all four-legged animals are striped.

        I actually do like this area of work and find it elegant. It’s just that it’s bizarre that this is an phenomenon that all of you have heard of before when it is a relatively rare beast. Someone mentioned celebrity endorsements here. They have effects too, and they are much bigger, more important effects, but that doesn’t really fit a narrative being pushed.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Yeah, I feel bad about saying it was a bad experiment. It wasn’t a bad experiment. I mean, I would have chosen unfamiliar flavors too, to control for familiarity (it’s not likely most of us are familiar with twenty-odd flavors of jelly and jam, right?). The problem was drawing conclusions about choice without first looking at other potential explanations, like unfamiliar choices.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Seems to me the Sampler is already making choices. A clever marketer would note which jam the Sampler chose first, second … N. If the Sampler didn’t make it right through the list, he had consumed as much jam as he considered appropriate, or as much as his appetite could bear.

        The purchase decision is separate from the preference decisions.Report

  5. Glyph says:

    Obviously, for expensive/important choices (big-ticket items, marriages, that sort of thing) this doesn’t apply, but I find that for things like jam or Doritos, I suffer much less stress from just quickly making a (retroactively-apparent) bad call from which knowledge is still ultimately gained, than from agonizing too long over the call to be made.

    So I’ll grab the first jam flavor that looks good; and if it sucks, I simply chalk that up to experience (now I know never to get *that* jam again, and at least I didn’t waste 10 minutes of my life in the jam aisle).

    Even for bigger items/decisions (say in project work), sometimes it’s STILL better to go ahead and make a decision that turns out to be suboptimal, than to spend too long dithering in decision paralysis – once you’ve made the call, further data quickly becomes available, and often (not always) course-correction can be made then.

    Again, this doesn’t apply in all scenarios – but in many that are not going to be catastrophically life-changing, I find it works for me.Report

    • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

      I used to work with a woman who’d been through 5 marriages in like 8 years. She apparently chalked up those bad decisions to experience as well.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Well, you definitely have to know when to quit. Like anything, it’s possible to take it too far.

        But my ex- and I went through a lot of agonizing back and forth about where the relationship was going to go, and we finally decided I was going to move in with her. Great! Decision made!

        And we were in the midst of planning that out, with weeks to go, when it became apparent that it just wasn’t going to work.

        If we hadn’t decided to move forward with an (obviously in retrospect-unworkable) plan, who knows how much longer we would have dragged out the relationship.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        That’s an interesting point. I stayed in a relationship way too long because we chose to make no choices, if that makes sense. If we’d made a choice — to move in together or get married — we’d probably have broken up long before we did.

        The lesson I learned from this is to either move in with a woman or marry her within the first 6 weeks.Report

  6. kenB says:

    In case you haven’t seen it already, Jim Manzi critiqued the jam study a while back.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to kenB says:

      I hadn’t. Thanks for sharing the link. For what it’s worth, I do not join Manzi’s in his critique of the jam study. He seems to think choice overload situations are unicorns, and the findings are the result of chance. I think they are more like zebras. I am guessing the findings can be replicated, but only in carefully controlled (unrealistic) conditions.Report

      • kenB in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        There may not be that much distance between you two — he does say “The paradox of choice will surely occur in some contexts – it’s just that markets don’t seem to produce this outcome very often.”

        It’s certainly interesting how the idea has taken off even in the absence of very good evidence for it.Report

      • I think his idea of “some contexts” was if the aisles of products got so big that a customer couldn’t traverse them. I think the jam experiment is a plausible context for the effect, which he doesn’t seem to buy.Report

  7. NewDealer says:

    I am having a hard time choosing what kind of comment to make of this post.Report

  8. NewDealer says:

    From a liberal standpoint, the piece you linked to is the only one that argued based on choice overload hypothesis against privizativing social security. Most liberals want to keep social security because it works and works well. Most of us distrust 401(k)s because they seem to be a suckers bet and have poor returns:

  9. NewDealer says:

    One area where I heard too much choice might be a bad thing is the on-line dating market.

    For those that have never done it, the on-line dating market is rather brutal. No one seems to enjoy it but everyone seems to do it because that is how people meet their mates and lovers these days or so it seems. A lot of my slightly older friends (by a decade or so) say that they are glad they met their mates before on-line dating with a thing.

    The average on-line dating encounter seems to be this. Look at someone’s profile, chat a bit back and forth, meet up for a drink or two and have a perfectly fine two hour conversation, never see your date again because one or both of you did not feel any “chemistry”.

    I’ve seen a lot of people theorize that people are ignoring perfectly “good enough” potential spouses and mates because Mr and/or Ms A plus could be right around the corner in the on-line dating world. So instead of giving someone a second chance, you just move on to the next profile. General you, not a Vikram Bath you.Report

    • Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

      Most people have too high of an opinion about themselves.
      This is why folks don’t get married as often (that, and less social pressure).Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to NewDealer says:

      I’ve seen some of the research on choice overload in online dating as well. I believe the result. At the same time, I’d point out that it might actually be rational to be more picky when you have a lot of possibilities around.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

      Also because movies and TV have brainwashed people into expecting an immediate “That’s the One” reaction. Think about it: among your best friends, were they all people you were immediately drawn to, or are there some you got to know and appreciate gradually?Report

      • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        all immediately drawn to.
        (what? I don’t have many “best friends”)Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I agree with this. I get in trouble for saying this but I don’t believe in the idea of chemistry or at least instanteous chemistry. When I’ve been attracted to a woman, its usually something that builds up overtime rather than “thats the one” with one exception. However, romantic comedy established the chemistry troop and a lot of people believe in it, hook, line, and sinker.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        *shrugs* Just because it’s not you doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.Report

      • I agree with this in spirit, though in reality my wife and I were talking about marriage within a couple weeks of meeting one another.

        Or maybe my disagreement in spirit is limited, too. While my case is a bit extreme, I don’t believe in dilly-dallying during the dating process. Once you start dating, at least, you should have an idea pretty early on of the potential commitment level.Report

      • My wife and I talked about dating one year after we met.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I agree with this. My standard for a second date is “hey they conversation was fun and the pauses were not too awkward.”

        I’ve been told my standards for a second date are too low and just end up wasting time for people.

        But I don’t know how one experiences significant chemistry based on a few e-mail chats back and forth and an hour or two real-person chat over coffee or some other drink.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        My criterion, and it is singular, for a second date is, “Do you want to go on a second date?” I generally have good first dates, because I’m pretty good at first dates, so they’re not a good measure of anything. Second dates either, really.

        Thinking about it, on the few occasions that first dates with women I didn’t know prior to the first date resulted, over time, in relationships with very strong mutual feelings, there was something in those first dates that was different. I’m just not sure I could pinpoint it, or recognize it in the moment as the “this is someone you could have strong feelings for” feeling.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I’m with ND on this. Kim, I suspect instances of chemistry are much rarer than you think they are and that people might be a little more happy if they weren’t so obsessed with their being chemistry on the first date.

        When it comes to dating, I feel like I’m playing soccer while everybody else is playing tennis.Report

      • I think there may be some terminology mismatch here. What Lee refers to as chemistry is something closer to what I would think of as Love At First Sight. Or Love At First Date or whatever. There is no doubt in my mind that chemistry is something real. I’ve seen too many cases where we pass right by someone to someone else when there are no real objective attributes that would make us prefer the latter over the former. That, to me, involves chemistry.

        Of course, I think the same sort of thing occurs platonically. Though that’s a different chemistry set.

        Anyway, I do think that chemistry can develop over time, though. Or perhaps the chemistry that exists is merely unearthed. But I think there are intangible factors that attract us to some people and not others independent of observable features. Whether this is literally chemical, or evo-bio-immunity characteristics, I do not know.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Oh, totally, folks would be much happier. And it is… somewhat more rare than people think. Also somewhat more common.

        You have what’s essentially the “raw base chemistry” approach — folks are innately attracted to people of radically different ethnicities than they are (this is something deep and biological… and often overridden by culture).

        You have the opposite, as well, of course — ever meet two people whose tastes seem nearly identical? How can those two people NOT click, nearly at first sight? (this is to some degree chemical in nature — who likes cilantro? and a good deal about “growing up” influences on someone).

        Then you’ve got the chemistry of raw unfiltered charisma. “God, he is HOT!” (even if, looking at a picture, he’s nothing special). This tends to be pretty specific to certain people and personality types (though it’s somewhat trainable). And this is more “I want to shag him” than “I want to spend the rest of my life with him.”

        Regardless, “love at first sight” isn’t a real basis for relationships. It might start something that becomes really powerful… but it’s just a thing.

        It’s quite possible for folks who fell in “love at first sight” to eventually figure out that they’re completely hopeless together.Report

  10. Anyone who disbelieves in choice overload should go shoe shopping with my husband, is all I’m gonna say.Report

    • As a child, shoe shopping was very traumatic for me (in the trivial way that something annoying is “traumatic”). I had to parade around the shoe store while my mother asked if the shoe felt okay or if it was too tight, loose, etc. I never knew, so I had to keep trying on and guessing what the right answer would be, until somehow (I don’t remember how) we finally decided on a shoe.

      Now, I just go into the store, look for a show that says 9 1/2 that looks like I want it to look, and buy it, feeling confident that after a few days’ wear, the shoe will be molded to my feet. (Actually, now I have a shoe supplier friend who mails me his old runners’ shoes. The weird thing is,he’s a size 11 or so, but the shoes seem to fit.)Report

      • That is also my general approach. I want into a store, find a shoe that looks pretty much like what I had in mind, and say “this one, please.” I took a little bit more time with my running shoes, since I’m in the camp that believes that certain types of gait do better with certain kinds of shoes, but now that I have a model that works well I just replace my old ones with the same kind when they wear out.

        And I had a similar experience of shoe shopping as a kid, with the added bonus of having really flat feet, so every time I had a new pair the overwhelming sensation when trying them on was of the arch pressing uncomfortably on my soles.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I usually don’t have this problem. Thats because I’m a size 7 and basically have to take what the store has in that size.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I loathed shoe shopping as a kid. Mostly because it generally involved either 1) not finding anything that fit properly, and wasting an afternoon or 2) finding something that fit, and then being dragged by my mother to half a dozen other stores in order to make sure there wasn’t something that fit better and/or fit equally well while being cheaper.Report

      • Kim in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        that was clothes shopping for me.
        Walk around the store, pick out (minimum) of 20 outfits.
        Try on. Select one (maybe two).
        Rinse wash repeat, until an entire semesters clothes was found.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I once walked into a running store in Durham NC. The clerk sent out a fitter, who sternly ordered me about, measuring my pronation, gait, every possible measurement of the leg, foot and insole.

        In this place, you walked out with the right shoe.Report

    • dhex in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      some people actually enjoy what appears to be – to outsiders – an incredibly painful ordeal of going back and forth between several choices for far too long.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to dhex says:

        As someone who inherited being a bit of a clothes horse from his mom and dad, this is true. There are considerations to be made. Can something work for both casual or more dressy wear? What kind of statement does it make? Does it fit?* Will it mold?

        I don’t find shopping for things to be very tedious especially for important choices and big investments/purchases like furniture and such.

        *My feet are short but wide. This makes finding something that fits but also looks good to be a challenge sometimes.Report

      • dhex in reply to dhex says:

        yeah but that’s all part of shopping if you really care about what you’re shopping for. it’s a consideration of anything worth being considerate about. i’m thinking more of the person who agonizes and feels genuine stress over the decision – i think part of them enjoys the sadism towards their own desire to own whatever it is they’re shopping for. also sometimes people are just a bitchass about making a decision.

        i go shopping with a friend of mine who’s like that. she wants it but she doesn’t and a blah blah blah blah blah. if you’ve tried the same thing on three times you are either a) really like it but are balking at the price or b) really don’t like yourself.

        it doesn’t help that women’s shoes are a total minefield of overpriced nonsense where black is white and up is down.

        “My feet are short but wide. This makes finding something that fits but also looks good to be a challenge sometimes.”

        nordstrom’s rack, allen edmonds, alden…the brits and eyeties are probably not gonna help you out there too much. i’m a 13e to eee depending on the shoemaker and the style, which is just on the edge of “totally sucks to buy for”.

        speaking of which i want these in walnut totes badotes:

    • Kazzy in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      A close friend and I spent 2+ hours in a Johnston & Murphy’s outlet store once as our girlfriends looked on in horror.


      Somehow the missed the fact that we needed to find a pair that looked good on me (tall and lean) and on him (short and round). How do you not know that is a prerequisite to two dudes shoe shopping together?Report

    • As someone who wears size 15 shoes, choice overload sounds enviable to me.Report

  11. Mike Schilling says:

    I must be missing something. “Kiwi”, “three fruits marmalade”, and “lemon curd” all sound great.Report

  12. Patrick says:

    Interestingly (but unsurprisingly), they find that studies that do not validate the choice overload hypothesis tend to not get published.

    This is a general, legitimate critique of our current iteration of science publishing. You see a *lot* of workshop conference topics about it, probably as many as you see critiquing the peer review system we have now or for-subscription journal models. I expect a pretty big shift in scientific publishing in the next 20 years; there are too many people bitching about the current system (legitimately) for the system to not respond somehow. PubMed and the like are the first cracks in the dam.

    The flip side to this, from the standpoint of the researcher, is domain familiarity. One of the difficulties of trying to pick up a different field from your own is that just reading papers isn’t enough (it’s an important first step, akin to standing before you walk or run, though).

    You have to go to the conferences and talk shop and get drunk with practitioners in the bar and listen to them talk about their negative findings and why they like certain papers (or don’t like others). Actual practitioners do this sort of thing, which is hardly outside-the-domain accessible evidence, but it’s still there. Cite count isn’t enough.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Patrick says:

      I’d like to think there might be a shift to take care of such problems, but I am not optimistic. It would be nice though.

      But yeah, the conferences are an opportunity to talk about what people are actually working on rather than what they have allowed to be published.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Advertisers and marketers doesn’t read the scientific papers. They understand consumer decision making rather better: their experiments have some ruthlessly efficient analysis techniques, all with actual numbers attached. Market share, markup, purchaser demographics, ultimately bottom line sales.

        For some products, whipping up a half-dozen stylishly coloured cover plates is enough to create the illusion of choice. For others, exclusivity is everything: consider the racist maniac currently running Abercrombie, telling people to their faces: we’re not interested in selling product to anyone but Cool People. Again, it’s just an illusion, exclusivity isn’t a measure of quality.

        But at some level, the trade-off between standardising a product and offering options favours standardisation. The German Army during WW2 was equipped with superior technology, pretty much across the board. Problem was, their munitions factories were saddled with the task of creating shells for too many different calibres of weapons, leading to shortfalls across the board.

        On the other hand, if you can’t make your brand stand out, creating some difference, real or perceived, you fall into the trap of commoditisation, where it doesn’t matter which brand of baking soda you buy, they’re all baking soda.Report

      • Chris in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        The marketing people I’ve known have definitely read the studies.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        You’re probably right, Chris. The marketers ought to turn up at these conferences and show them how a marketing campaign is actually measured. Sure doesn’t look like some monograph on Jam Selection. Those boys and girls at Smuckers could give them some useful parameters for further studies.Report

      • I say this with all the love possible: academic marketing researchers are not interested in learning what is actually the best way to market jam. They are looking for elegant, counterintuitive phenomena that they can isolate in whatever way possible and get a statistically significant result out of.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Well, sure. But ultimately the experiment is denominated in terms of Buying Jam. Jam. Dollars. Choosing isn’t hard. But choice is a rum old thing, very squishy. This goes back to one of my main objections to the Social Sciences. Great sociology, lousy science.Report

      • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Yeah, they have.
        But some of the best research lives under the name “trade secret.”
        Some truly, truly fascinating stuff, that’ll never see the light of academia.Report

      • kenB in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        At the risk of seeming like I’m shilling for Jim Manzi, his new book Uncontrolled sort of does that — after a few chapters on the history of the scientific method and the limits on what experiments can reasonably tell us in different contexts, he discusses his experience running a company that specializes running randomized field trials for businesses and how that might be applied to other domains, but especially social science.

        It’s not perfect but it’s an interesting read — the first part of the book should be required reading for anyone who likes to cite studies to support their political beliefs.Report

      • Chris in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        There is a difference between market research and marketing research. The former is done by marketers, and the latter by academics who study marketing and how it affects peoples’s behavior. They’re both valuable to anyone who’s interesting in marketing a product.

        It’s not a coincidence that the big journals in marketing research — aside from the Journal of Marketing Research — are titled things like, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, and Journal of Consumer Behavior.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Dammit! Another book I’ve got to buy! Reading League gets expensive if you want to keep up.Report

  13. Patrick says:

    I present as evidence this 2004 piece in the New York Times by Barry Schwartz about why choice overload research means that Social Security should not be privatized. Schwartz cites all the popular choice overload studies and doesn’t seem to pause to consider the vast inferential gap between these narrowly constructed studies and Bush’s plans Social Security. The piece is not a balanced reflection of what exists in the psychology literature. It is a carefully limited set of evidence designed to cater to a narrative.

    On this, I’ll note: it’s not uncommon for even good experimentalists to be terrible at performing good lit reviews.

    Nobody likes to do lit reviews (well, except me, maybe).Report

  14. Tod Kelly says:

    I didn’t do a Thursday Night Bar Fight this week, but if I’d read this earlier I might have had one that asked, “What would be more of a First-World Problem than complaining about the stress from having too many 401k options and jam flavors to choose from?”Report

  15. Damon says:

    Was there apricot? Because I always buy apricot.Report

  16. kenB says:

    I’m at work and so I’ve only skimmed the comments, but as far as the jam study is concerned, the question is not between choice and no choice, but rather between a few choices and a lot of choices. We’re all apt to be indecisive at times, and “no choice” can sometimes be a relief, but personally I have a hard time thinking of a case where five choices would’ve been fine but 30 choices was overwhelming.

    By the way, this otherwise fine post is missing the obligatory link to this joke.Report

    • Kim in reply to kenB says:

      I can. Clothing. There’s a finite cost to trying on each.
      30 would be annoying (particularly if it’s something like color, which is hard to see until you have it on).Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to kenB says:

      That’s a good one. Though the version on that page was taken without attribution from Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor.Report

      • kenB in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        True, and I almost mentioned that — Asimov’s book was the source in my head, but I just searched for some key terms and linked the first match I found.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        That’s where I know that joke from too. I recognized it because I’ve always considered the last sentence a bit clumsy. It works better as:

        “Ah,” said the heavenly voice, “But am I Saint Francis Xavier or Saint Francis of Assisi?”Report

      • kenB in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Agreed, though perhaps it’s more awkward in print than it would be when spoken, where tone and pacing could smooth it out.

        But just to be pedantic (because that’s what I am and I’m too old to change), your rewrite should probably say “But did you call on…”, not “But am I…”.

        My dad gave me that jokebook when I was eight or so and I devoured it (figuratively) — I still remember most of the jokes, and I even find occasion to tell a few of them now and then. I’m a lousy joketeller, so mostly I just summarize them and invite my listeners to imagine what they would sound like if told by someone more talented.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to kenB says:

      “personally I have a hard time thinking of a case where five choices would’ve been fine but 30 choices was overwhelming”

      That is because you are not stupid.

      Not everyone in the world is not stupid.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to kenB says:

      The only time I would imagine fewer choices being better is if each choice requires vetting and there is a limited amount of time to act. So if I’m buying a TV and need to make a decision by the end of the week, I can more thoroughly vet 4 TVs than I can vet 30.

      Now, this doesn’t guarantee I’ll make a better choice… one of the 26 I exclude my ultimately be the best one. It just means the process might be simpler. Those two things shouldn’t be conflated.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

        I’ll take fewer choices if it means a reduced price (which it generally does. you really think vanilla ice cream costs the same to make as rocky road?)Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

        I like reduced choice when it is carefully curated choice by someone I actually trust. For me, Costco is a good example. They only have one of any given product, but it’s usually a pretty good version of whatever it is.

        One exception was the snowshoes I got for my wife. But that’s what returns are for.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:


        A non-consumer example is voting in municipal elections. Few people do (at least where I live; in the US, where municipal votes take place at the same time as state and national ones, participation may be higher) – turnout is usually 25% or less in my city) – and I suspect a large part of that is that there are 20+ candidates running, many of them aren’t associated with parties, and making a decision other than random or arbitrary choice (“eh, I like this guy’s name”) involves doing significant research on all of them. In an election where you’re choosing between 2-4 people, making a decision that’s at least moderately informed is a lot easier.Report

      • kenB in reply to Kazzy says:

        OK, I see what y’all are saying, but I guess my experience of it is not a feeling of being overwhelmed — I just realize I need to seek a buyer’s guide or other resource to help me decide.

        As Brandon says below, I certainly wouldn’t want some entity to deliberately reduce the choices, because my top 5 might very well be different than someone else’s top 5.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        I think we can also look at what we actually do…

        Before I make a big or important* purchase, I scour the internet not only for as much information on the product I’m leaning towards, but also for any alternatives that might be better. I actively seek out MORE choices to ensure I am being appropriately thorough and making the best choice possible. I may be a bit extreme in this regard (my mom actually wrote her speech at my wedding about my intensely thorough search processes), but I rarely make a decision I strongly regret. But, yes, I see more choice as advantageous.

        * Basically any purchase that involves the baby is important. I spent 3 hours researching travel wipes cases… none of which cost more than $9. But, goddamnit, we were not going to be caught with dried out wipes because of a faulty seal!Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

        @kenb , I mentioned it in another thread, but I use for just about everything I buy. I’ve always been happy with everything they have recommended.Report

  17. Kazzy says:

    First off:

    “The choice overload hypothesis is perfect for a Malcolm-Gladwell-narrated world. It’s counterintuitive enough to be interesting. It’s complicated enough to show up approvingly in the news outlets catering to readers eager to think themselves smart*, but simple enough for them to narrate later at a cocktail party.”

    That is beautifully written. I put Gladwell in the same category as the Freakonomics guys, more or less. They go for low-hanging fruit on the “interesting” continuum, overstate the case, and seek to make faux-experts of us all. Which isn’t to say they are always or necessarily wrong, but it is important to put them in the proper context.

    To the meat of the article, my anecdotal experiences tell me that “choice paralysis” (as I’ve heard it termed) might be true for some people, but is far from a universal human condition. And the people who tend to struggle with many choices struggle similarly with fewer choices. My sense is that it has less to do with the number of choices and more to do with that which surrounds choice, responsibility in particular.

    My wife struggles to make choices. But it is not because she doesn’t have a clearly discerned preference or can’t make sense of multiple options. It is because is weary of taking on the responsibility that comes with making (some) choices. If she makes the call on what we have for dinner and I don’t like it, that doesn’t sit well with her*. She’d rather not assume that risk and that responsibility. But she sure as hell knows what she wants to eat.

    I have seen some young children who struggle when given more choices. But these are young children. Many of the cognitive processes required to discern between multiple options and make an informed choices are barely formed. So while I think there are some characteristics of young children that we can generalize/extrapolate to humans at large (young children are still human, despite what some people seem to think), this is not the case for all characteristics.

    * Me? I'd tell her to go sit on a tack. But I'm a jerk. And she does this weird thing all the time — I believe it is called "feeling"…? — that I presume explains much of the difference.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

      Which isn’t to say they are always or necessarily wrong, but it is important to put them in the proper context

      This. The context is almost always missing. Clever and interesting beats out important. It’s not really their fault since they are giving what their audiences want, but the end effect is not as good as it could be.

      Your wife’s case is actually an interesting one. It’s not about the choice but about the assumption of responsibility that the choice represents. I actually think that is likely to be true of more of these examples, including the college students with too many job prospects.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I think we tend to view decision making and choice through skewed lenses. This is especially true when one has the opportunity to deviate from the status quo. Often times in such cases, people refuse to make a choice, which typically defaults to the status quo remaining. But what is really happening is that they are choosing the status quo.

        I also think there are some cultural issues at play. My wife’s mom’s family hail from Connecticut. While they are not/were not particularly wealthy, they still embodied some real stereotypical “WASP-y” attitudes and traits. One of their tendencies is intense passive aggressiveness, because they have apparently internalized a mindset that to affirmatively state an opinion or position is somehow gauche. My wife takes this to new extremes… “Do you want to hold the baby?” “No, I’m busy.” [storms off] Apparently, she wanted/needed me to hold the baby. But instead of saying that, or even phrasing that as a question (“Can you hold the baby?”) she asked me my preference with the expectation or assumption that either A) my preference would be hers or B) I would understand her question as something other than it was and respond accordingly.

        Long story short, there are some people who are trained to not make decisions, or at least not make them the way most people would. Back to her family… no one ever just says what they want; it is always phrased as a question. This makes them look indecisive, but the reality is they are very opinionated with clear preferences; they just frame them atypically.Report

      • You mean ?

        I agree with the practical equivalence of not choosing and choosing the status quo, but it’s worth noting that psychologically they are totally different.

        “Do you want to hold the baby?” “No, I’m busy.” [storms off]

        How do you respond when she asks if you can pass the salt?

        Rest assured that if you keep this up, she will eventually go supernova, and you will find out exactly what she has been expecting of you. 🙂Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I don’t play the “Well, I can pass the salt…” game. That is needlessly obnoxious.

        But when she asked if I wanted to hold the baby, I thought she was just checking in. Because sometimes I do go to her and say, “I want the baby!” And at that moment, I didn’t want to hold the baby. I took her question at face value and answered honestly. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have held the baby if she requested or demanded that I do so. I just didn’t read the question that way. I’m working hard to encourage her to be more direct, letting her know it is perfectly okay, healthy even, to make demands of people. How you frame them matters… no need to go around barking orders through a megaphone… but there is nothing wrong with her saying to me, “I need you to hold the baby.”

        Maybe it is the PreK teacher in me coming out, since I spend so much time with my kids getting them to effectively identify, articulate, and advocate for their wants and needs. But I think things work better when we are as clear, precise, and transparent with our language as possible.

        All that said… should I disappear from the comments section… assume I misread one too many “questions” and am now hanging by my thumbs in the basement.

        Regarding the status quo, can you talk more about the psychological difference?Report

      • @kazzy

        My own approach to things is probably like that of your wife and her family. I am slowly learning to be more direct, but it’s hard, even though I fully realize that it’s important to do so.

        I do think there is a hard to locate line between “communicating something only directly and perhaps passive aggressively” and “using a linguistic convention that for the sake of politeness in some circles is understood as a direct request but when taken literally can function merely as an attempt to ask for information or state an opinion.” For example, my father liked to give orders along the line of “I think that you should do….” And I often sincerely interpreted those orders to mean he was literally stating an opinion and not telling me to do something. So when I refused to do what he “thought I should do,” he saw it as disobedience and got very angry.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        I just did a workshop with some colleagues about this. A recent trend among certain parents and teachers is to “ask” children to do something when they are really being told. The basic idea behind it seems to be that it is “nicer”. E.g., “I’m asking you to clean your room” versus “I’m telling you to clean your room.” This has become a dominant trend, especially among middle- and upper-class white folks, which makes up the majority of our school teachers.

        Problem is… not all of our students are middle- and upper-class white folks. So students for whom English was not their first language, many children of color, children of lesser means, and young kids who can be painfully literal… there was a real disconnect. I’d often hear teachers say, “This is the third time I’ve asked you!” But what the child hears is, “Well, she asked… can’t I say no?” Etc, etc, students get labeled as non-compliant or discipline problems.

        I myself used that language for a long time. And it has taken me a while to scrub it. Now I do my best to make clear when I am telling and when I am asking… when the child does not have a choice and when he does. While the convention might be one I understand well and those in my immediate context, the reality is that it is not a universal convention. So, as a teacher, I think I am duty bound to handle it differently.

        Families are different. Families will have their own conventions. And if they work within the family… well, go for it. Of course, whenever you start mixing families (which is really just another form of mixing cultures), you’re going to have some disjointedness. Which is why I default to as direct as possible. Which, I should note, is not how I was raised, but something I’ve arrived at. In no small part because most of my conversation each day is with 4-year-olds.

        If you are not single, how does your partner respond if/when you tell-by-asking?Report

      • @kazzy

        “If you are not single, how does your partner respond if/when you tell-by-asking?”

        Thanks for asking! (Assuming you were asking and not commanding, in which latter case I’ll say “how high do you want me to jump” 🙂 )

        I am (very recently) married, although we’ve lived together for 3 years. She is more direct about expressing most of her needs, at least that’s my impression (I can’t speak for how she sees it).

        I do get the impression that my own m.o. is to put her in the position where I’m de facto requiring her to be a mind reader, which of course is an unfair position to put her in. So we have certain cues where I’ll say something and expect her to know what I mean and when she doesn’t I am disappointed. I think her reaction is usually to go with the flow, although she calls me on it sometimes. (I’m afraid I can’t go into more details than this.)

        To move away from your question, I’ll say that one of the difficult things about my customer service jobs (and my current job has a customer-service component) is that I have to balance being polite and non-abrasive with telling customers what I can and can’t do for them and what they may or may not do.

        The “may/may not” might sound harsh for a customer service gig, but my current job is in an archive, where the patrons have to follow specific protocols when it comes to viewing manuscript collections and where I have to deny certain requests for photocopies or for boxes of manuscripts because of copyright or privacy concerns. In those situations, I have to find a way to be polite but clear and to not embarrass the patron if at all possible. (Archives can be intimidating places for patrons, especially ones who are not used to visiting them.)Report

      • greginak in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Kazzy- I see this a lot although in a slightly more humorous way. I see a lot of parents ask 3 or 4 or 5 year olds children questions like “do you want to clean up your toys now?” when its time to clean up. The children give the only sensible and correct answer: “No.” That always makes me smile. Which leaves the parents sort of flummoxed and trying to then tell the children what to do , but are a bit confused.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        Heh… oh, parents. How we got it into our collective head that we shouldn’t tell children what to do will boggle my mind. I don’t think we need to or ought to micromanage them. But they need our guidance and often crave limits and structure, which they rarely can impose on themselves. They want to be told what to do, even if it doesn’t always appear that way.

        We are somewhat similar. We’ve been married just over 2 years and have lived together for approximately 5. We’re still piecing together exactly what our code is. I think we understand it better than we let on sometimes. Sometimes (not always) I know exactly what she is saying when she “asks” a question, but I get frustrated about the game/code and push back. Or I assume it to be more intentional than it is and make accusations of manipulation.

        Like most other things with relationships, on good days, these things are nary a problem. On bad days, they can be hugely divisive. Thankfully, we have many more of the former than the latter, and we’re generally able to move through problems relatively quickly and painlessly.

        Here is hoping you guys are having similar success navigating the waters.Report

      • Kazzy, if your wife asks you for something indirectly, and you don’t pick up on it, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is wrong and you are right. I can guarantee you that there is contextual information that she is communicating when she asks “Do you want to hold the baby?” that you are missing. With sufficient experience you could learn to do it her way.

        (If it were her commenting about you, I would encourage her to move to saying things more directly, but that’s not the case.) In general, try to fix the part of the communication chain that you have the most control over.
        Regarding the status quo, can you talk more about the psychological difference?

        Nothing profound. It’s just that if you affirmatively decide to stick with the status quo, it is because you have made a decision that that is the best option among the ones you considered. In other words, you made a prediction.

        If instead, you don’t act out of indecision, you have not made a prediction. You have merely procrastinated on the decision. You haven’t predicted that the default is the best available option.Report

  18. Kazzy says:

    I should also note that when I saw the title of this post, I thought, “I bet Vikram wrote this.” I feel like I can do that quite regularly at this point. So, take that for whatever it is worth… 🙂Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

      I like making unconditional statements that are not always true purely to spite the people out there who are bugged by someone saying something that is not always true.

      So, for me, it must be “Choosing isn’t hard” no matter how much I want to say “isn’t always” or something like that.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        No wonder you fit in so well ’round these parts.Report

      • There is a troll inside my head that does all the titling work. I take no responsibility for his choices.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        You would be good at writing propositions for debates.

        Sometimes they are written poorly, allowing one side to weasel into their argument.

        A recent IQ2 debate was set up as “Israel cannot survive a nuclear Iran.” At one point, one of the debaters on the con side said simply [paraphrased], “Can they? Sure. Any number of scenarios might emerge that does not result in Israel completely disappearing.”

        No such tactic would work with you at the helm.Report

      • @vikram-bath

        I like making unconditional statements that are not always true purely to spite the people out there who are bugged by someone saying something that is not always true.

        I have a tendency (well, not exactly a tendency, but more an inclination) to adopt a phrasing, or at least an approach (filled with parenthetical caveats and provisos, but even so I’d have to admit that they’re not always as provisional as I deem them), that insists on nuance (or something very like it) which has, or can have (or could, under the right circumstances, have) the function of stifling (or muting) whatever point I’m trying to make, which is not to suggest that there might not be some categorical propositions out there I’d be willing to embrace (or at least entertain).Report

      • I eventually do that too, but that’s only after commenters have beaten all those additionally clauses into me.Report

  19. Fnord says:

    Perhaps that went by too fast. I’m going to type this part very slowly so it sinks in: when there are two options, 75% participate. When there are 30 options, 70% participate.

    You have to add 28 options to discourage one additional person out of twenty. And that was sufficient to motivate HR Magazine to publish an article encouraging companies to slash choice in their retirement plans.

    You have a point, perhaps, that choice paralysis is frequently overstated. But I think you may be going to far in the other direction, and understating. Let’s examine this particular datum more closely.

    Yes, the drop in enrollment is relatively small. But why are we offering more 401(k) choices in the first place? Presumably, we’re offering more choices to benefit the employees: if there are more plans, they’re more likely to find a plan that meets their needs (or meets their needs better). Thus, naively, we should expect MORE employees to sign up when their are more choices available; some employees that weren’t interested in one of the two plans can find something they like among the 30.

    But instead you see a drop in enrollment. It’s only a small drop, as you point out. But the important point isn’t the drop. It’s that you lose the gain you’d naively expect from an increase in choice. You’re losing the gain that was the purpose of offering the choices in the first place.

    As James H. points out, there are plenty of techniques that people can use to prevent an excessive additional burden from choice paralysis. But all of those techniques entail, basically, not taking advantage of the choices available. That’s the real take-away of the choice paralysis finding. It’s not that choices make us significantly worse off, it’s that they fail to make us better.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Fnord says:

      It’s not that choices make us significantly worse off, it’s that they fail to make us better.

      This seems plausible for investments, because the vast majority of people have no idea how to choose among the available options.

      But as someone with unusual preferences in a wide variety of areas, I can assure you that this is not true in general. Having more than five choices is absolutely worthless—as long as you’re one of the people who prefers one of the five choices available. For everyone else, it adds value.Report

      • Fnord in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        It’s not really zero sum. The point is that you have to be smart about how you add your options. Most people don’t benefit from 28 flavors of jam on shelves. If your idiosyncratic preference for guava-apricot-termite demands it, that’s what specialty stores are for.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        But as someone with unusual preferences in a wide variety of areas,

        So much for ordinary times.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Yes, I’d say that ‘choice paralysis’ is more relevant for things that require research (where introducing more options increases the time and effort needed to make an informed decision) than for basic consumer goods.

        Unless we’re talking superstores, where the added time and effort of finding a specific item I wanted would probably be enough to dissuade be from bothering to buy it, but that’s not quite the same issue.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Fnord says:

      “But instead you see a drop in enrollment. It’s only a small drop, as you point out. But the important point isn’t the drop. It’s that you lose the gain you’d naively expect from an increase in choice. You’re losing the gain that was the purpose of offering the choices in the first place.”

      But only if the desired gain is higher enrollment. If some percentage of the people who do enroll end up with a better plan because they were offered one that was previously unavailable, that is a worthwhile gain. Whether it outweighs the drop will depend on how one values the different factors.Report

      • Fnord in reply to Kazzy says:

        True. And if some people were more stressed than in the 2 decisions case but managed to come to a decision, that’s a loss that also isn’t measured here.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

        Fnord, your point is well noted and I agree. I read the 401k study with interest precisely for the reason you state.

        But I wouldn’t then go tell a bunch of companies that they need to kill off mutual funds in their plans. There may be people who benefit from having those choices, and it isn’t clear to me that limiting their choices is merited by a 5% bump in participation.

        Especially when one considers that there are other ways that might retain choice and get better participation, like having a default choice or making investment advice available, etc. Instead, choice overload is treated like the only important thing science has to say on the subject.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Fnord says:

      That reminds me, I need to look at my 401KReport

  20. zic says:

    There is an appliance store in a neighborhood we used to live in; it’s speciality was finding the best stuff and offering that; a selection of often high-priced, but not necessarily highest price, and always high quality. People loved it because the screening had been done for them. Sure, you’d pay $50 to $100 bucks for a toaster, but it would be a good toaster. Same with the blender, the dishwasher, stove, or refrigerator.

    I remember selecting a washer/dryer for the first home we purchased; I went there first, to see what they offered. Went to BigBox store next. Ended up going back to the neighborhood high-end appliance store. Because of the combination of selection overload and seeming ignorance of the sales staff at BigBox Store.

    But I didn’t really know a whole lot about what goes in to making washer and dryers; I just knew I needed a set, and I wanted a set that would last a goodly number of years. In other words, I didn’t know the strawberry jams of the washer world; I knew the inside of a laundromat.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to zic says:

      There’s an electronics review site called “The Wirecutter” that takes the same approach, and I absolutely love it. If you need a new laptop or TV and don’t want to do much research, they’re a great place to start.Report

      • zic in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Thanks for that, in the market for a new camera and refrigerator.

        And speaking of camera; anybody got recommendations? I need macro and good depth-of-field control, that stuff you used to do with the f-stop. Light weight (gimpy hands, the heavier the camera, the more I’ll eventually shake), automatic exposure bracketing, and the ability to recompose after I’ve focused/metered on my subject.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Oh! I can talk about cameras!

        The smallest sensor camera you can get decent depth of field control with is a micro four-thirds camera. (Get an idea of sensor sizes here: .)

        Olympus and Panasonic have been making them for a while. The second to last picture in this post was with an Olympus E-PL1:
        The colors are off because I didn’t set the white balance properly. It’s not the fault of the camera. For the features you want, I think you’d need the pricier EP series, not the EPL.

        I really liked the size of the Olympus. It’s not pocketable, but it hangs around your neck very well. I just used the stock zoom lens that came with it. Lenses in general are the weak point of micro four-thirds cameras. I’m sure you can find a macro option, but I bet it’s just one.
        So, what I now use is a Nikon D3100. It’s an APS-C DSLR. I do *not* think it does automatic exposure bracketing, but the next version up does. For macro shots, the Nikkor 105mm macro is supposed to be one of the best macro lenses and a great value. I haven’t tried it personally. (The last picture in the linked post was taken with it and the super-awesome 85 mm prime lens.

        Professionals who do macro seem to use Olympus DSLRs though. For whatever reason, Olympus has owned that space.

        You really ought to ask how important macro is to you. If it’s not very, you could get the Nikon 40 mm macro lens. It’s a great normal lens that you can also happen to use as a macro. To be honest, I kind of wish I had gotten it rather than my 35mm.
        The best depth of field control comes from getting a full-frame DSLR, but if you’re burning that kind of money, you ought to do your own research. I actually own a film Nikon N90 and a 50mm prime lens, so I can get crazyily shallow depth of field if I ever need it. I got it used from for about $100, I think.
        the ability to recompose after I’ve focused/metered on my subject

        Almost any point and shoot will let you do that. The bracketing is less common.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Oh, one other thing is that you search Flickr to see images taken with whatever camera or lens you want.Report

      • zic in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Thank you, Vikram. When I began using a digital camera, I had an Olympus, I liked it very much, particularly the grip. I used it for work, too; I published a lot of pictures I took with that camera, until it got stolen one very, very sad day. No longer made.

        Since, I’ve been using a Panasonic Lumix, which I purchased because of the Leica lens on it; it has a digital display, and it’s gotten too dim to see, it also doesn’t do macro as well as I need.

        This is definitely one of those areas where choice has become a barrier to actually making a purchase. I would really like my Olympus back. Really. Or the viewfinder of Lumix to brighten up again. Sigh.

        These days, I’m mostly doing photography of my design work, so need good close ups of stitch detail and fashion shots that isolate the subject from the background. The really narrow depth-of-field is the top priority there. And price; it seems silly to me to eat up a years worth of sales in the cost of a camera.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Do you know what model Olympus you had? Usually all the makers follow the same naming convention for follow-up models.

        To get good depth of field, the things you need are
        – a relatively large distance between what you want blurred and what you want in focus
        – good lighting
        – a relatively large focal length lens (I get more depth of field with my 85mm than my 35mm.)
        – a fast aperture lens
        – a large sensor

        That’s in order from least expensive to most expensive. Even a really small-sensor, small-focal-length camera like my iPhone can produce a shallow depth of field if the main subject is close enough to me and the background is far enough away.

        I would recommend going to a camera store and comparing the depth of field you can get with micro-four-thirds, APS-C, and full-frame cameras in that order to see whether you’re able to get the depth of field you want from a smaller sensor. In some cases, my film camera (which has the same depth of field as a full-frame camera) sometimes has too shallow depth of field if I’m not paying attention. For example, a person’s eyes will be in focus, but their ears will be blurry.

        There are also a couple of smaller cameras now with bigger sensors in them like the Canon EOS-M. They are more portable and cheaper than DSLRs. One trade-off though would be that your lens selection will be limited unless you get an adapter. Here are someone’s macro shots with that camera and a macro lens:

      • Kim in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Anyone planning on doing some digital editing ought to really invest in a good monitor. ~$800 range.
        The colors are spectacular!
        (I just watched Paprika on a really sweet monitor…)Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Problem with all those Sweetened Up Monitors, the gamma is actually worse. It’s the same problem with audio: reference speakers are not meant for your living room. They’re for accurate reproduction.

        That said, if you want to do editing, get your monitor(s) gamma calibrated.Report

      • Kim in reply to Dan Miller says:

        the problem with the monitors is that most images aren’t designed for ’em. if you find stuff with the correct color profiles, the results are amazing.

        (of course you have to calibrate the monitor)Report

  21. Mike H Rice says:

    In the wise words of Devo:

    Freedom of choice
    Is what you got
    Freedom from choice
    Is what you wantReport