ad astra per alia porci

the problem of choice
July 11, 2009, 1:22 am
Filed under: diary, Lifeskills, miscellaneous | Tags: ,

I have just completed Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice at a very appropriate time. Somehow the reading of this book coincided with a period of time where I had to make several important choices, and I found the book to be rather illuminative and instructive. It helped me understand better the intricacies of choosing and gives me ideas on how I should go about selecting options and maximising happiness.

Perhaps maximising is not the right word to use. After all, Schwartz’s primary thesis in his book is that maximisers are more unhappy than satisficers, in this brave new world of endless choices.

He emphasises the distinction between the two; the former seeks to maximise utility and choose the optimal solution from all the options he has while the latter is happy to settle the moment he stumbles upon an option that meets his own internal standards.

Maximisers end up being unhappy because in this age of choice explosion, it is practically impossible to optimise. The ability of any human to imagine better outcomes (“if only I chose X, things would be so much better”) results in maximisers being constantly plagued by thoughts of alternative, better outcomes, hence reducing satisfaction with their present choices and circumstances.

I was able to immediately identify myself as a maximiser, within the first 50 pages of the book. I have a tendency to analyse all the options, and agonise over which is the optimal option before finally moving to select that option. And it has, as Schwartz predicted, been a source of unhappiness.

But I would not venture so far as to say that being a maximiser is an thoroughly unbeneficial enterprise. Yes, it results in a measure of unhappiness, especially where one has to choose from an extremely large pool of choices and/or the subject matter at hand is an important one.

However I believe that there is a strong correlation between being a maximiser and being a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist helps a person because it helps him strive for greater heights, instead of languishing and stagnating under the false comfort of previous achievements. And for the especially important areas of life, one should be a maximiser.

Conversely, being a satisficer is not all laughter and sunshine. If one is a satisficer in all areas of life, one will lead a distinctly… mediocre life. Imagine a person who has low standards for everything; he will be fine whether or not he receives proper service in a restaurant, achieves good grades in school or post a good time for his 5km race. And the emotional pitfalls of being a maximiser is similarly applicable where the satisficer adopts a standard that is too high. He will end up having to thrawl through countless options, seeking the one option that will meet his standards, which is probably going to be very rare indeed. What is the difference then, between being a maximiser and satisficer?

Hence we see the problem. Satisficers cannot set too high standards, and maximisers need to know when to stop. There are certain situations where being a maximiser would be very beneficial to oneself (e.g. career, caring for loved ones), and there are times where being a satisficer is pretty much alright (e.g. choosing a pair of jeans).

What is really important is self knowledge. We must know clearly what we want, in order to know how high we should set standards and when we should maximise or satisfice. To paraphrase Yogi Berra , if we don’t know where we want to go, we will not end up where you want to go. I think deep inside we all know what we want, it is a matter of unearthing and raising these deep wants and needs to the surface so that we can be consciously aware of them. Sadly in this fast and frantic modern age where everything is expedited, including education, most people end up being half-baked individuals who do not know what they really want in life and float aimlessly through each day. But we still should seek to find out what we really want.

Instead of being a pure satisficer or pure maximiser, we should strike a “golden mean”, as Artistotle would put it. The maximising and satisficing tendencies are essentially mindsets, attitudes that we apply to situations. They are tools that we can use, depending on the situation and what we feel are important in our lives.

So here’s my humble solution. Be a maximiser when it really matters, and be a satisficer when it really does not matter.

For me, my studies and career as well as my love for certain important people in my life are very important for me. I will adopt the maximising attitude in this areas of my life. Yes, I will agonise over decisions and spend much effort arriving at decisions, but this is the price to pay for the good things in life. Also, the process of maximising in relation to the important aspects of my life can be itself an experience that is instructive and educational.

As for the rest, like food and drink and clothing, I am content to be a satisficer. I just need plain, dark 5-pocket slim jeans with waist size of 28 inches, thank you very much. I wear a standard uniform of polo, jeans and sneakers or shirt, jeans and boat shoes. And certain aspects of my lif eis on autopilot: breakfast is muesli, always, while the BBC and Guardian website are my chief sources of foreign news.

That I feel, is the best solution to the problem of choice.


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