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Thursday, May 6, 2004

Be Wise


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Too much sunshine can be bad for your eyes. I was reminded of this recently when I read an article called The Tyranny of Choice by Barry Schwartz, in the April 2004 edition of Scientific American. Schwartz succeeds in disproving the apparent logic that if some choice is good then more choice is better. His research offers insight into why many people end up unhappy rather than pleased when the number of their options increases.

Are we in a dilemma of choice in Antigua and Barbuda? I am interested in the idea of tyranny of choice for at least three reasons. When I was a boy, I could never understand why my mother would go from shop to shop in search of the same item, end up buying the first one she looked at, and still seemed unhappy over her choice. Secondly, we face some serious choices in Antigua and Barbuda in general, and in medicine in particular. Thirdly, everyone just loves when a brilliant piece of research such as Schwartz’s work, makes practical sense. And yes, there is a fourth reason: I still want to understand the 16,544 members of my tribe who voted for the ALP.

Schwartz divided his research subjects into maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers are those who always aim to make the best possible choice. Satisficers simply aim for “good enough”, disregarding the search for possibly better selections.

The irony regarding maximizers (“choosy-choosy” people) is that the more choosy you are, the less happy you are with the fruits of your efforts. That is what Schwartz found. You worry about the alternatives you did not have time to investigate, even after you have made your selection from examining many of the choices. The satisficers (“make-do” or “mek-out” people as we might say) may not make a better choice but they are happier with their decisions.

Schwartz looked at a concept called “opportunity cost” to understand why too much choice can be a recipe for unhappiness. The basic idea here is that any one choice by definition is considered in relationship to another. So the effect or penalty or cost of choosing option one is that you lose the opportunity of option two. Can you imagine the abject turmoil persons would find themselves in, trying to decide on Monday morning, if they should drive the blue car or the red one, or maybe the small black one, or call the driver and ask him to drive them to work? How depressing? What unhappiness! The “mek-out” person will have no such worries.

Seriously, Schwartz noted that the consequences of unlimited choice may go far beyond mild disappointment, to suffering and depression. This is partly because the choosy persons blame themselves when the consequences of the choices do not live up to their expectations.

So what do we do to ward off a bout of national disappointment, suffering and depression? What with all the choices “shining” down on us? Schwartz suggests a number of (you guessed it) choices: We must choose when to choose. This means that we must restrict our options when the decision is not too crucial (the colour of the paper clip is certainly not that important, Ms Secretary; nor is the colour of the toilet paper, my dear heart, sweetie pie).

We must learn to accept “good enough”. This does not mean any wishy-washy old thing. It means that we settle for a choice that meets our core requirements rather than search for the elusive best. We must stop second-guessing the choice we made and stop worrying about what we might have gained from the options we rejected. Lastly, suggests Schwartz, we must control our expectations. If we do not expect too much, we won’t be disappointed. Again, this is not the same as harbouring the lowest possible expectations. It is not in conflict with saying to a child that the sky is the limit. That child must be given the opportunity to decide if he or she wants to be an astronaut and by so becoming, that child can reach the limits of the skies.

In regards to medicine, there are many choices facing us as we try to literally heal the nation. I have to remind that in Antigua and Barbuda we are well aware of the folklore of the John Bull. If we do not choose wisely, John may just have been a herald of the Bull to come!

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