Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Radiolab on Choice

Today I listened to a podcast of "Radiolab," the WNYC show hosted by Jad Abumrad, the voice and inflection clone of that other NPRish guy who does "This American Life (Does that voice trainer do some standard laryngoplasty on everyone?) The experimental music and sound effects alone provide a worthy opponent to TV, despite the inability to exploit one of our senses. The topic of the day was "Choices" and the potential psychological perils of its abundance.

People, like myself, who read lots of "happiness studies books" (which is distinct from reading self-help books. Not that there's anything wrong with that...) will recognize some of the usual players who are interviewed, most notably, Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Harvard who wrote "The Paradox of Choice." Schwartz studies how the abundance of available options in developed countries commonly leads to self-doubt, regret, paralysis in decision-making, and an overall feeling of dysthymia. Schwartz believes that government should act to limit people's choices, by paring down, say, the hundreds of peanut butter options at Whole Foods.

Predictably enough, as a libertarian, I disagree with Barry Schwartz's prescriptions, if not his assessments. Even if, theoretically, government were justified in restricting choices without consent, and even if in practice did a decent a job ridding the public of some unnecessary choices, we'd still all have to cope with overwhelming options sooner or later. Schwartz, in his book, even provides strategies for doing so. Since Schwartz presumably doesn't believe in censorship, I'd still have millions of books listed on Amazon to devour. With some benevolent meddler paring down my reading list, I'd still mull over whether to read altogether to move on to cooking dinner instead (using a pared down list of recipes). In other words, people simply have to learn strategies of prioritization. Uncle Sam's wagging finger in the peanut butter aisle would simply help me avoid setting up the an internal Grand Supermarket Shopping Prioritization Strategy Task Force, a necessary step for learning to move on and get stuff done.

Abumrad interviews Oliver Sacks, who outlines his strategy to avoid deliberating on too many time-wasting decisions. He says, "I make a willful choice. Certain things I care about a lot and I worry over, and then there's a whole swath of my life that I just don't even choose." Every week, his housekeeper buys one half-gallon of soy milk, one half-gallon of prune juice, seven apples, seven pears, and several tins of sardines. She will then cook up a gallon of orange jello and a vat of tabbouleh, to be consumed for dinner each night, along with the sardines.

Sacks is so normalized to his menu, that he "never gets bored" with his food. Presumably, his main hedonic pleasure is music. To maximize time invested in such pursuits, he simply ignores other potential sources of joy, such as variety in food. Repetition, however, is not the same as denial: every day, he keeps exactly a dollar in his pocket, to buy a piece of 72% cacao chocolate at the chocolatier on his way home.

Later in the program, Abumrad highlights human irrationality in decision-making, through the concept of "risk aversion," or how our fear losing something overpowers our perceived joy of winning that same item. Mimicking a previously performed psychological study, the djs wandered around outside, offering random bystanders opportunities to play "heads or tails." The djs started out offering one dollar for the strangers' dollar (a proposition rejected by all), but then offered increasingly high amounts of money to match the bystander's dollar. Most people didn't accept the match until the djs reached about two dollars. On the show, the djs then speculate as to why, for most people, loss is twice as "painful" as gain.

Risk aversion is real, but I don't see how it is always irrational. For one, the dj's dollar is not worth the same amount as my dollar. My dollar is already in my pocket. His dollar has to sacrifice some pennies to pay for my trust that this stranger is good for the money, and this isn't just one big scam.

One guy, cited that he "was just not a gambler," and, for reasons other than religion, wouldn't even play if the odds were 100 to 1. Perhaps his view of gambling as different from other economic transactions is irrational (I avoid casinos, not because it's "gambling," but simply because I know my odds of winning are poor. I viewed my regrettable purchase of that "As Seen on TV" Super Slicer as simply a gamble with better odds). However, if the man is a conscientious objector to coin tosses, is that necessarily irrational? Perhaps, due to family history, he knows he may be susceptible to a gambling problem (thus making an irrational decision that is only rational, because it is used to combat an irrational compulsion). Maybe he just wants to die bragging that he never gambled. The problem with these studies, I find, is that the researchers just don't give their subjects enough credit.

Even if there were no doubts about the integrity of the djs, nor any personal opposition to gambling, a more serious error is to assume that a potential dollar won is worth the same as the dollar the person already has. In fact, I suspect Sir Oliver Sacks himself might have refused to play the game of chance. A hundred to one odds might allow the chance to purchase the fanciest products displayed in the supermarket. But he could also lose the opportunity to buy a piece of 72% cacao chocolate on the way home from work.

Update 1/7/09: The very day I wrote this post, I randomly came across this at the "Overcoming Bias" blog. I suppose the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon is my personal bias of the hour.

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