Choice is a search

From time to time I stumble upon yet another article mentioning that humans are just bad at choices. I think accepting it as a truth is detrimental, and I’d like to disprove it.

Before you point at all the studies that prove that indeed humans are inherently bad at choices, I invite you to look at this issue from a different perspective: not if choices are hard or not, but rather to understand what exactly is hard about which choices, and why, and hopefully next time instead of “choice is hard” you can say “this particular choice is hard because of [this particular reason].”

I see the coice as a search, and if you think about it this way it makes sense that the clearer you define the search criteria, the easier you will find whether there is a match or not. The size of the option set also matters, but that is an obvious physical reality and not something related to human nature.

Some examples.

I came into the café, and for more than a couple of seconds stared at all the cakes trying to pick one. It may seem like a perfect embodiment of the idea that choices are hard, but let’s look closer and see what exactly is happening here.

What I’m trying to do is to fulfill a need — my hunger — and I have a few options. From all those cakes, I have tasted a few before, but by now I really hardly remember how any of them tastes. So essentially I’m trying to pick between unknowns — and this is what makes it hard.

In this case it’s hard because the search criteria is hard to define. And because the search criteria is vague, it’s hard to apply it to the options and tell which one matches.

One other example that is often brought up as illustration of this pseudo-phenomenon is how hard is to pick clothes. Say you want a new pair of jeans and, because there are 20 of slightly different pairs of jeans in the store, this — the variety — is speculated to be the reason for why it’s hard to make a choice.

No, this is not the reason. It is hard because it’s not possible to determine if a pair of jeans will fit your body just by looking at it or by reading its label. You can read some key measurements on the label, but you can’t be sure they fit until you put them on. It may be tedious to put on each of the 20 pairs of jeans, but this has nothing to do with choice, or with any inherent defect in humans.

In this case the difficulty lies in defining the search criteria, but also in verifying if the options match the criteria: you have to put the jeans on.

Another frequently speculated example is buying a computer: how do you choose between so many brands? The clearer I define what I need it to do, the easier it makes the choice. And it’s as valid the other way around: the less specific I am about what I need it to do, the harder it will be.

Again, the difficulty of of this particular choice actually lies in defining the search criteria.

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So, there is no paradox to the choice itself, or anything inherent in human nature that prevents it from making choices. There is only clarity or the lack thereof.