Saturday, September 15, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

There is plenty of evidence that suggests that while people like to have choices, they don’t like to make choices. Some economists find this a paradox. Are the two inconsistent? I doubt it. Having more choices maximizes your long term freedom, while making a choice irrevocably closes off future options. If you order the banana cream pie, you can forget about the chocolate parfait and a lot of other choices.

Decision making is hard, especially when the stakes are high. It costs a lot of mental and psychic energy. Michael Lewis got the world’s most important decision maker to talk about his process. (As quoted by Andrew Sullivan):

Michael Lewis(full disclosure: old friend, former colleague) asked the president to "Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president." Part of Obama's response:

You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

Some people seem to make decisions quickly and easily, relying on “gut” rather than brain. Mostly they seem to be reckless idiots.

Einstein and Feynman were a couple of others who made it a point to eliminate unnecessary decisions from their lives. Feynman always had the chocolate ice cream. Einstein dispensed with socks.