The Pain of Closing Doors aka Human Rationality vol. 2

06 Feb

Studying at a university while not having a single clue what your major is going to be is silly. Applying for ten different positions and then experiencing an excruciating pain in deciding which ones to decline is unnecessary and unreasonable. Going out with more than one girl is outright hazardous. Yet, some people keep on repeatedly finding themselves “trapped” because of their irrational and poor decision making. Why?

Fun fact intermezzo: According to Dan Ariely, humans are very good at creating new ways to kill themselves: If the mortality attributable to bad decision-making was 10% one hundred years ago, today the figure can be as high as 45%. (Think of extreme sports, smoking, alcohol, diabetes…) Not something to be proud of, if you ask me.

The special aspect of human irrationality I would like to expose here is our inability to “close doors”. We all somewhat tend to keep on postponing decisions. Not just the small ones like what to have for dinner, but – more importantly – the big ones like which subjects to study or which career path to choose. The natural instinct is to keep as many options (“doors”) open for as long as possible; however, this often leads to less-informed, more rushed and overall worse decisions.

It can be argued that if you are given the opportunity to explore as much as possible, you will ultimately find the right thing for you. However, there are two problems with this statement: a) Unless you have a very strict deadline when you need to pick, there is nothing holding you back from experimenting for far longer than it would have been desirable: wasting opportunities and having only shallow knowledge of a lot of things instead of deeper knowledge of less. b) The more you know about different options, from some point on it may become impossible to choose “rationally”. You love economic thinking, the complexity of biology and the beauty of poetry – how can you possibly drop any of those? You become more emotionally attached to things you spent some time doing (check out the sunk cost fallacy article here) and hence no longer see their true value.

There was a study when the subjects were playing a computer game according to the following rules: There are three rooms: blue, red and green. If you click on one of them and start clicking on things inside, each click will earn you some money. Each room has a different “price level” – i.e. there are more and less valuable clicks in these rooms. You can freely move from one room to another, but you have only 100 clicks “to spend”. After that the game will end. In this setup, people usually explored the three rooms and then settled for one and made some amount of money.

However, then the rules were altered: If a room was not visited for a number of clicks, it would disappear. Guess what! Most of the participants kept on clicking like mad and running from one room to another (because they hated the prospect of a particular room being “lost” forever), effectively “wasting” clicks that could have earned them money. In the end they made significantly less money than the first group.

Morals: It is a good idea to explore the opportunities you are given, but always make sure that other options are not getting out of your reach while you are stuck resuscitating “doors” that should have closed long ago. Curiosity might have killed a cat; do not let stupid decision-making kill your dreams.

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Posted by on 6 February, 2012 in Rationality


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