(credit: Penn State)

Why choosing can be better than picking

Life is an endless string of choices. The way we make them matters

In the 1982 movie Sophie’s Choice (after the eponymous book by William Styron), the central character (played by Meryl Streep) faces a dramatic choice. As she arrives in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz with her two children, a camp doctor extends to her the ‘privilege’ to determine which of her children she will keep, and which one will die. If she fails to make the choice, both will be sent to the gas chamber.

Thankfully, such extreme situations are rare in our daily lives. But we do make choices all day long, literally from the moment we wake up. Which leg out of bed first? Which pair of socks from the drawer? Such selections between mutually exclusive options are the stuff of economics (and behavioural economics).

The most terrible choice

The selection challenge

So it was not entirely surprising to learn that Cass Sunstein, co-author (with Richard Thaler) of Nudge and prolific writer of papers related to behavioural economics, named a paper on exactly this subject as the one that has influenced him most. In Picking and Choosing, two philosophers, Edna Ullman-Margalit and Sydney Morgenbesser, explore two very different mechanisms for selecting from two or more options. They develop a robust, fascinating explanation of human decision making.

Choosing is defined selecting from a set according to our preferences. If we are indifferent to the elements of the set, then selecting is labelled picking. Intriguingly, much of the literature appears to skirt around or even deny the existence of the latter possibility.

Conventional economics relies on preferences. Even if there is such a concept as an indifference curve, it is generally seen as a theoretical concept. People simply choose between options based on their preferences, and reveal these preferences through their choices. The assumption is that, in practice, there will always be some feature that leads to a difference in preference, no matter how small. Some go so far as to say that if there truly is no option that is more attractive than the other, then no choice can be made. A thought experiment known as Buridan’s ass (and a variant of earlier instances going back to Aristotle) illustrates this: a donkey, located precisely between two identical piles of hay, must starve to death as it cannot rationally choose between the two.

Widespread picking

Yet the authors of the paper build up a strong argument for not only the existence of picking situations, but for their widespread existence. Selecting one of many cans of soup on a supermarket shelf, for example, is a picking operation. We simply cannot express a meaningful preference between two undamaged cans with the same use-by date of the same brand and variety.

Sure, there may be differences (e.g. one may contain a little more soup than the other), but the effort of figuring out such differences far exceeds the benefit we could obtain from that knowledge. In other cases, we know there is a material difference between two options and we do have a preference, but we cannot possibly establish it — for example, a game in which one person hides a coin in one of her hands, and the other person must select the correct hand to win. Like a contestant in a Monty Hall challenge, we are compelled to pick.

Anyway, just like Buridan’s donkey doesn’t actually starve to death, so we don’t linger paralysed with indecisiveness at the shelf with the soup tins. We simply pick. But how do we go about it?

Pick a tin, any tin (photo: Dave Nakayama)

Key to understanding what really happens is the insight that, while we have no preference, we also have no reason to regret our eventual selection. That allows us to delegate the selection to some random method, for instance. Of course, we’d need to decide whether we’ll use, say, a coin toss, or a dice throw. And we’d then need to select which coin or dice to use. So trying to avoid picking, we need to pick again…

What if we decided to adopt a strategy by which we’d always take the leftmost, or the first mentioned alternative? This doesn’t absolve us from needing to pick either: we still need to pick between leftmost and rightmost, or between first or last mentioned. And we’d need to pick between the two approaches of course!

If we cannot escape having to pick, we are manifestly capable of doing so. What is more, we may even choose to pick in situations that might be seen as choosing situations. Some people may choose a scarf to go with a blouse in the morning, or a tie to go with a shirt — and others may simply pick one, if they consider the actual selection to be inconsequential. The cost of choosing may outweigh the benefit of making the ‘best’ choice.

Ullman-Margalit and Morgenbesser conclude that an objective separation between picking and choosing situations is not possible. Instead, they propose a continuum, with ‘core cases’ of picking at one end, and of choosing at the other — on the understanding that even at these extremes it is possible for us quirky humans to flip to the alternative selection approach.

Choosing to avoid losing

I can only concur with Cass Sunstein on the significance of this paper. Its fine analysis of how, day in day out, we make our way through an endless succession of choices tosses aside the idea that we are rational decision-makers. It explains why most of us are, most of the time, not utility maximizers but satisficers. And it provides new insights every time you return to it, hinting at new, unexplored ideas and implications.

Indeed, as I was reflecting on all this, my wife was looking for somewhere to put our passports (as we were travelling at the time). And suddenly I realized that this was another instance of picking vs choosing.

A study conducted at Princeton and Indiana University in 2010 found that information presented in a harder to read font was better remembered than easier to read material. This was the case both in a controlled lab setting, and in a high school classroom. The cognitive strain is assumed to be the underlying force.

Similarly, the cognitive effort is higher if you consciously choose where to place an item than if you simply pick somewhere to leave it. This would then forge a slightly stronger memory, so that you’ll find it easier to recall — and find the item when you need it.

Keeping our passports safe didn’t quite constitute a controlled trial, but I am happy to report that, later that week, we had no trouble locating them. (Earlier occasions had been somewhat more frantic.)

So next time you need to put away your passport, put down your car keys, or leave that important letter somewhere until you go out , maybe try to choose a place rather than to pick one. The subsequent panic avoided is most likely well worth the small cognitive load.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on August 25, 2017.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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