Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Paralysis of Choice

I'm not sure how many people suffer from this, but I am absolutely paralyzed by choice

I've had to train myself to make arbitrary choices just to get anything done.  People who know me well know that when confronted with a mostly trivial choice (like where to go for dinner), I simply choose one option, with no rhyme or reason.  Part of this is because I think people usually already know what they want beneath the layers of pro/con analysis.  When a friend is struggling between two relatively equal options, I will boldly declare "Option A!".  Typically the response I get is either "yeah, let's do that!", or "no, I want to do the other one!".  The response is rarely continued indecision.

But the other reason I make an arbitrary choice is that it's impracticle to do extended decision analysis on every trivial decision.  My natural inclination is to figure out all the tradeoffs offered by each of my options, and try to make the right decision. But the consequences of making the incorrect dinner choice are negligible compared to the amount of time you'd have to spend making the "right" choice- particularly in matters of taste, where there is no obvious definition for the "right" choice.

But my indicision extends a lot further than this.  I went to a drive through the other day, and my total was $8.40.  I gave the guy a $10 bill, a quarter, a dime, and a nickle.  He came back and gave me two $1 bills and a nickle.  I looked at him confused.  He said "you gave me a quarter and two dimes".  I knew this wan't the case, but after a few seconds of arguing, I just gave up (he was positive he owed me 5 cents, and it didn't seem worth it to keep arguing).  But as I was pulling out, I got to thinking about my relative certainty that I gave him a dime and a nickle, not two dimes.  Could I be wrong?  Absolutely I could.  I've done stupid things like that in the past, not looking closely enough at what I was doing.  I was 99% sure of myself when I first gave him the change, but I was somewhere between 90% and 95% sure I was right after he argued with me.  So far, so good- I got some new input and updated my bayesian priors.  It just so happens that I trust myself a lot more than I trust random-drive-through-guy.

But then I got to thinking on how much I would bet on the fact that I gave him a dime and a nickle.  Would I bet $100?  Or $1000?  Or my whole life's savings?  I realized that, even though I felt very sure I was correct, I still wouldn't bet any amount of money that I wouldn't be totally fine with losing.  When I did my decision analysis, I cared a lot more about the difference between the end states than I did about the liklihood of each of these states actually happening.  I cared about my maximum gain and maximum loss a lot more than I cared about my expected value.

My point is that, while I tend to implicitly trust my own intuitions when it comes to claiming truth, I tend to doubt them quite a bit when it comes to acting on truth.  When I have to make a substantive choice based on my beliefs (a choice that involves actual risk and reward), I find that the very presence of someone telling me I'm wrong with absolute conviction is enough to confuse my decision making engine.  It seems that I just tell myself I'm 95% sure- but my actions say otherwise.

I suspect you know where this is going, but I'll finish the thought anyways.  The parallels between this and religion are pretty obvious.  We're bombarded on all sides by people telling us they know the truth- entirely, completely, almost comically assured that they are correct- and each of these people is pulling us in a different direction.  Any confidence I had in my conclusions evaporates as soon as I meet another (seemingly reasonable) person who believes quite the opposite.

I find that I can pick my way through this minefield much better on matters of fact (the historical nature of the old testament, for example) than I can on matters of personal experience.  Our reason is so colored by our experience that its difficult to say which religion is even being reasonable, much less which, if any, is right.  Religion tell me that this is the point where faith takes over.  Science tells me (and my own natural inclination is) that a retreat to faith in the face of uncertainty is the surest path to being wrong.


  1. Here are my thoughts on the change situation. The fact remains that one of you is right, or at least there is only one exact amount of money you could have given him if you were both wrong in your perceptions. Would you be willing to put your money on there being only one exact amount you had paid? You may not be able to put your money on atheism or theism, but would you put your money on only one of them being right? It would seem a retreat into one or the other could only have a 50% chance of being wrong while a retreat into skepticism is the surer path to being wrong because it assumes there's a chance no one is right. Hope that makes sense.

  2. Interesting thought- surely either Theism or Atheism is right (just as (a | a`) must be true, although "Theism" here is admittedly very widely defined). But this sounds dangerously close to Pascal's Wager. I think the point of the skeptical retreat is to try and come up with a better heuristic than 50/50 (and really, a retreat to anything other than skepticism is much, much less than 50/50, if we're to regard all of our options as equally likely- Atheism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) A retreat to faith will only give me a probability of being right equal to the probability that I happened to be born into the one true faith.

    To be fair, it's not as if I'm offering a better solution here. I seem to be making an argument to "trust no one" while simultaneously admitting that my problem is that I trust everyone...

  3. I wasn't really trying to say one should just pick one, but that one couldn't just accept that "we may never know" as an answer, when the truth must be out there. I don't even think that's what you are doing since you are obviously seeking answers.

    I have the same the problem rectifying Bayes' theorem of religious belief that I have with Pascal's wager, and that is that God is ultimately calling us into a love affair with him, and one cannot fall in love by statistics.

  4. "I have the same the problem rectifying Bayes' theorem of religious belief that I have with Pascal's wager, and that is that God is ultimately calling us into a love affair with him, and one cannot fall in love by statistics."

    +1 to this. I absolutely agree. The problem is the "calling us into a love affair" business. That phrasing is intensely personal, and to me indicates an undeniable reality that should be present in any such relationship with God. The very fact that we (or rather, I) don't feel this "personal" relationship with God seems like really strong evidence against any religion that claims a "love affair". You can't love what you're not sure is there.

  5. One cannot be forced into love, one must be wooed. I think you have been taught a lot of half truths about Christianity, and only continued study of it will prove or disprove that to you. It’s hard to appreciate the true beauty of a sunset when looking through a shattered window. Maybe God knew you wouldn't be satisfied with the partial truths of the faith you knew. Perhaps he is calling you into deeper waters before giving you the conviction you are looking for. Please don’t rule out the possibility of having conviction in the future because you have not felt it in the past. I truly believe you will find what you are looking for, and it will be worth the wait.