The Paradox of Choice

Part 2

First of all let me just say I appreciate the engagement. I’ve been looking at my stats and have been happy that people seem to be reading what I’ve been writing. It’s pretty cool to have someone leave a long comment. This is a slightly modified version of my response to that comment, that I think fleshes out more of what I was trying to say.

I don’t think it’s feasible or desirable to have the government decide what we should or should not consume on an individual level. I actually think that would be disastrous. We all know what happened when the USSR tried to implement that.

In addition to ignoring people’s preferences, it also kills individuality and identity.

I also agree that diversity is a great thing, and I like the example of the orchid family.

Because things change over time. Needs, wants, trends. No one in the year 1980 could really have predicted what kind of music or clothing would be popular in 2010. It just evolves organically through people making free choices.

I think there is something beautiful in that.

But what my article was trying to get at was something deeper: What choices are important and what choices aren’t?

I’ve read from several sources that Barack Obama wears the same thing every day. This is to minimize the number of choices he has to make regarding his appearance. He always dresses formally, but he doesn’t have to worry about what to wear when he gets up in the morning. In fact, a lot of high achievers seem to do the same thing.

There are studies that show that making choices actually tires the brain. Which makes a certain amount of sense. A choice really is just weighing out several options and then choosing the “best” one given the available information.

This requires computational power: the brain must use energy. “Choosing” can be simulated on a computer pretty simply by taking the several options available, gathering certain metrics on them, applying weights to the importance those metrics and then summing them up to get a ‘score’ for each option. The highest score, is the choice you go with. This is the basis for how machine learning works, and I want to do a whole article on this some other time.

An example we’re all familiar with
The mathematical formula for a weighted average

So going back to what I was saying earlier about individuality and identity: we are the sum of our choices. But some choices are clearly more important than others.

It’s actually a little silly that there’s only one word for all the choices we make. Some are impulsive and happen by force of habit. Others are more conscious and unique. For example, there is a big difference between the choice of what college to attend and what to eat for breakfast in the morning.

Though I’m not sure which one ends up mattering more. What you eat every day will probably affect your health long term. But that one choice of college may determine the course of the rest of your life.

The real world takeaway of the article is that a lot of the choices we make really aren’t that important, but for some reason a lot of people get caught up in them. Some of the richest people on the planet made their money through high fashion. The sell the idea that money can buy identity and meaning, in the form of clothing, perfume, accessories, makeup…

The truth is that a lot of it is perception. You are paying to wear their name. Most designs are imitated and knocked off almost immediately and the quality of those knockoffs can range from poor to nearly identical.

Now that isn’t to say anyone can go out and build something like an iPhone and have it work just as well as the original. There is craftsmanship that goes into every Rolls Royce, and I do have to respect anyone who is a master of any trade. Brands become popular because they offer some value.

But what exactly is it that we are valuing? Beauty? Trendiness? Social Acceptance? Scarcity (artificial or real)?

Do any of those things have intrinsic value? Or are the reasons we valued somewhat obscured Have we really thought about why we prize expensive drugs, liquor, cars, jewelry, houses, boats and planes?

There’s a certain amount of narcissism involved in nitpicking. When people are bothered by a minor change to a website, or a change in a feature on a smartphone during an update, or a I have to ask ‘why do you care so much?’

Personally, I’m pragmatic (so thank you for sharing about the idea of pragmatarianism). I like things that simplify my life, make a certain task easier or more enjoyable. But it’s not always clear that a given product will achieve that. I spend too much time on social media now because of my iPhone. It’s not an evil device, but that was probably an unforeseen consequence when the iPhone was introduced. It has solved so many of my problems, but it has also created new ones. But that’s a topic for another time…

My point: It may not be easy, but people need to choose more wisely what kind of choices they make.

Although now we are starting to get a bit meta.

But I guess there’s a reason it’s called the “Metacortex”.

The good news though is that this just gave me a bunch of ideas for more articles :)