Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Tyranny of Choice: Barry Schwartz


In a classic demonstration of the power of sunk costs, people were offered season subscriptions to a local theater company. Some were offered the tickets at full price and others at a discount. Then the researchers simply kept track of how often the ticket purchasers actually attended the plays over the course of the season. Fullprice payers were more likely to show up at performances than discount payers. The reason for this, the investigators argued, was that the full-price payers would experience more regret if they did not use the tickets because not using the more costly tickets would constitute a bigger loss.


Alex C. Michalos of the University of Northern British Columbia has pointed out that all our evaluations of the things we do and buy depend on comparison — to past experiences, to what we were hoping for, and to what we expected. When we say that some experience was good, what we mean, in part, is that it was better than we expected it to be. So high expectations almost guarantee that experiences will fall short, especially for maximizers and especially when regret, opportunity costs, and adaptation do not factor into our expectations.

Addendum: For those of who prefer the visual, auditory, dynamic socratic method – Barry Schwartz’s TED talk

The original sin.

This article has made me reconsider two of my cherished views.

– I had argued with Justuju in the past that hunter-gatherers enjoy a poorer quality of life compared to agriculturalists, industrialists and post-industrialists. This article rubbishes at least one of these claims, as far as the progression is concerned.

– Quoting Diamond:   


At this point it’s instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.. 


I am guilty of this anti-archeology bias. I have also been in the clutches of a progressivist dogma.

Once upon a time, I was sitting in a computer lab with a management-type. Let us call him A. A was a quite successful manager, male, late 30s, who wanted to beef up his career with a master’s degree from a top institute to further climb the corporate ladder.

As was our wont those days, we would sit into the late hours of the night, solving assignments, writing papers or writing up theses. In those days, I was more intuitively-argumentative (as opposed to tempered-argumentative) as he centered on “If you truly believe X is possible, then X is possible”.

Even at the time, I was struck by this solipsistic position, not because it was a surprising idea, but because I did not expect it from a successful businessman who was possibly approaching his midlife crisis.

His position was that if you believe that you can fly, like in the song (you know the one), then indeed you can. And most (all) people cannot fly because they do not believe hard enough.

I was of course unsuccessful in convincing him at the time that belief had nothing to do with it, and we went on a little back and forth on the mechanics of flight – and air densities and lifts and such – because of which, actually, we are able to build flying machines although we humans couldn’t ourselves fly like birds; at the end of which, he concluded that I did not believe hard enough, and I was too caught up in my engineer modes of thought. The argument spread (as arguments do) into mechanistic thinking; whether or not God exists; how is it that we are able to anticipate and hit badminton-shuttles without needing to understand projectile-motion-mechanics; and how for all my purported mechanistic ways, I still promoted use of blackguard “thought-experiments” – which for him was unholy smoke.

He called the argument off with “This is what is wrong with you engineer types. You think that science explains everything”. I was miffed not because he drew a stereotype as some may have objected, but because he drew an imprecise and incorrect stereotype (which is stereotypically what an engineer may say, for instance).

Subsequently, I have encountered several solipsistic arguments ranging from Boltzmann brains and brains in vats – to the less fancier – “If one isn’t there to watch a sunrise tomorrow (eg., if one dies in one’s sleep), then indeed there isn’t a sunrise tomorrow at all”. I have also encountered – usually from the receiving end – several avatars of this Mr. A brand of “optimism bias”, from people in varied stations in life.

Anyhow. Carpe Diem will probably say that such thick, extra dollops of optimism bias enable Mr. A to ride the engineer types who will be forever left singing paeans for realism in the dust that the rosy-visionists will rake up. Meanwhile, I wonder why Mr. A needed this rosy-outlook at that stage of his life.