making decisions

The Art of Choosing


“Americans tend to believe that they've reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions that don't always hold true in many countries, in many cultures. At times they don't even hold true at America's own borders.”

~ Sheena Iyengar

[Thanks Kit!]

Condemned to Freedom

Excerpt from “The Limits of the Coded World,” by William Eggington, New York Times (July 25, 2010):

In Immanuel Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.

rainbow Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism…

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre…gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.

Read the entire Opinionator post…

A Beguiling Call to Death

Johnny Quid’s (Toby Kebbell) cigarette monologue from RocknRolla (2008):

You see that pack of Virginia killing sticks on the end of the piano? All you need to know about life is retained within those four walls.

You will notice that one of your personalities is seduced by the illusions of grandeur. A gold packet of king size with a regal insignia. An attractive implication toward glamour and wealth. A subtle suggestion that cigarettes are indeed your royal and loyal friends. And that, Pete, is a lie.

Your other personality is trying to draw your attention to the flip side of the discussion.  Written in boring, bold, black and white, is the statement that these neat little soldiers of death, are, in fact, trying to kill you. And that, Pete, is the truth.

Oh, beauty is a beguiling call to death and I'm addicted to the sweet pitch of its siren.

That that starts sweet ends bitter. And that which starts bitter ends sweet.

Overwhelming the Prefrontal Cortex

Jonah Lehrer discussing his book, How We Decide, which is now out in paperback, “The Paralysis Of Analysis,” Fresh Air (January 22, 2010):

First chapter and New York Times review. One of the studies I talk about in the book concerns a study done by Stanford psychologists. They had two groups of people. One group they had memorize a two-digit number. The other group they had memorize a seven-digit number. Then they marched these two groups down the hall and gave them a choice between two snacks.

One snack was a rich, gooey slice of chocolate cake. The other snack was a responsible fruit salad. The people who memorized a two-digit number were twice as likely to choose the fruit salad as the people who memorized the seven-digit number, who were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake. And the reason is that those extra five digits — doesn't seem like very much information at all, just five extra numbers — so overwhelmed the prefrontal cortex that there wasn't enough processing power left over to exert self-control.

So that gives us a sense of just how limited in capacity our brain actually is and, I think, points to the fact that we should absolutely be aware of these limitations.

What We Remember

“We’re constantly being swayed in what we do by just a little teeny change, something that comes, for examples, from our past experience with a certain kind of situation. But what we remember from the previous situation is not just the facts and not just the outcome that may be good or bad. We also remember whether or not what we felt was good or bad. This is something that people need to understand. When you are making decisions, any day of your life, the [choices] you make are going to produce a good or bad outcome – or something in between. You don’t only remember what the factual result is, but also what the emotional result is. And that tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical. And of course most of what we construct as wisdom, over time, is actually a result of cultivating that knowledge about how our emotions behaved – what we learned from them.”

~ Antonio Damasio, in conversation with David Brooks on the topic of emotions from the perspective of neuroscience and evolution during the Aspen Institute on July 4, 2009.