Closing Some Doors

Too many choices?  The New York Times has an article by John Tierney, “The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors.”<span>  Tierney discusses Dan Ariely’s new book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions: “an entertaining look at human foibles like the penchant for keeping too many options open.” 

Here’s one section about an experiment to look for cash behind one of three doors, with each door having a set pay-off and the other doors slowly disappearing over time unless one used a click to help keep it open (thus wasting a click that could provide more money): 

[The researchers] plumbed the players’ motivations by introducing yet another twist. This time, even if a door vanished from the screen, players could make it reappear whenever they wanted. But even when they knew it would not cost anything to make the door reappear, they still kept frantically trying to prevent doors from vanishing. Apparently they did not care so much about maintaining flexibility in the future. What really motivated them was the desire to avoid the immediate pain of watching a door close. “Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says.

That paragraph strikes me as in need of some good ethnography—that “apparently” looms too large in my imagination. 


In any case, here’s another line from the article: “So what can be done? One answer, Dr. Ariely said, is to develop more social checks on overbooking. He points to marriage as an example: ‘In marriage, we create a situation where we promise ourselves not to keep options open. We close doors and announce to others we’ve closed doors’.” 

Actually, as an anthropologist, I might argue that marriage creates us, rather than the other way around.  I was given sage advice about my own wedding, that I was playing a role—it wasn’t really “my” wedding, but also for everyone else.  And for anyone thinking that the market rules all, why the heck do we spend so much money on wedding gifts and honeymoons?  Our cultural expectations and norms organize our spending as much as any closing of doors. 

That said, I appreciate Tierney’s nice finish, the ability of Rhett Butler to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”  I must confess, I keep too many options open.  Blogging and anthropology alike are all about pursuing options (well, we anthropologists call it being “holistic”).  Sometimes those options are whims, rather than anything more substantive.  In another day and age, that might receive lauds of “Renaissance man,” but I suppose that’s about 500 years too late and I am, as an academic, most definitely without a patron to sustain my whims. 

Perhaps I should have read Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More.  Here’s a blurb from Publishers Weekly: “Schwartz, drawing extensively on his own work in the social sciences, shows that a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us. We normally assume in America that more options (“easy fit” or “relaxed fit”?) will make us happier, but Schwartz shows the opposite is true, arguing that having all these choices actually goes so far as to erode our psychological well-being.” 

And Booklist: “Schwartz tells us that constantly being asked to make choices, even about the simplest things, forces us to ‘invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, and dread.’ There comes a point, he contends, at which choice becomes debilitating rather than liberating.” 

If you want to see more, as in an hour long video, here’s the link to Schwartz discussing our US societal assumption that freedom and choice are much the same thing:  http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6127548813950043200 

Finally, the New Yorkers also has a review of Schwartz’s book, with some basic discussion of research in this area at: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/01/040301crbo_books

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