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Archive for the ‘psychology of choice’ Category

Gift Boxes and BallSanta, make it stop!

My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of  Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys “R” Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it’s too late:

Final Hours:  30 percent Off!
Friends and Family!  Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute?  Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages.  Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour-40-percent-off sale.  I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself – and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping – should be immune to all this insanity.  And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books:  All these options, all these sales!  Get it together before it’s too late.  Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life?  As we’ve written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse.  Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, interwebs) and we’re headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis.  In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we’re Christmas shopping — or more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It’s not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one — or no sweater at all.  Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice’, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect.  And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don’t.  Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions.  Consider the newness of it all.  Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.  (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children).  Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything – with or without kids.  That freedom is what we’ve fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress.  There’s an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students:  Before they’re legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life’s path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it’s too late.

But anyway, back to me.  As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get Fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December.  And you know what?  Santa always comes.  I know this, truly I do.  And yet: with stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven’t bought one thing.  And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can’t help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me.  But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins.  That cute little pencil skirt?  You can never have too many.  Or, um, can you?   The Northface half-zip?  But wait, doesn’t he already have one?  So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all.  Just not quite sure of the color.  Good price, though.  Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?

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So, the subject of our book is certainly in the air as of late. First, Ann Marie Slaughter, and now, a piece on The Daily Beast by Debora Spar, whose take on the issues of women chasing perfection, juggling roles and choices in a not-adequately-changed world was, frankly, so similar to the things we’ve written here and in our book, it took us a moment to realize it wasn’t our byline on her piece.

Ahem.

Now that that’s out of the way, as we noticed way back when we began writing Undecided in 2008, women today, blessed with the abundance of choices our mothers fought to get access to–and our foremothers might have thought impossible–are finding that this blessing is indeed mixed. That the messages on which we were raised, messages delivered with the best of intentions, have a flipside, as though delivered via an evil game of Telephone. Told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that whatever we choose to do, it better be something good… and we better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: that every choice entails a trade-off. That we cannot be in two places at once. That, by definition (not to mention the basic laws of physics), if I am sitting here pounding out this piece right now, I am not taking my dog for a hike, or meeting a friend for happy hour, or cleaning out my closet as I’ve been meaning to do for weeks now. (Though, I am, as a matter of fact, simultaneously cooking dinner. And now my keyboard is getting sticky from the roasted garlic I just pulled out of the oven. Dear Multitasking: You suck.) There are only so many hours in the day. No one really clues us in to that one.

We set off, ready to conquer the world, as we believe we’re supposed to. And then we realize: Having it all is simply not possible. A high-flying career woman is not also a stay-at-home mom. A stay-at-home mom is not also a globe-trotting free spirit. A globe-trotting free spirit is not also putting down roots, and paying down a mortgage. Every time we make a choice in favor of something, we are by default not choosing something else. But the rub is that we think it’s only about us. That we’re not good enough. That if only we were ___er, we’d be able to swing it. But that’s a lie.

That the chorus is getting louder is good. Because there is so much that remains to be done. And that there remains so much to be done–on the public policy and workplace fronts, yes, but in the way we talk to (and about) our sisters, our girlfriends and our selves, as well–in no way diminishes all the work that has been done, all that’s come before. And that we don’t want to diminish all that’s come before doesn’t diminish what lies ahead. The world hasn’t caught up to what we’ve been told–that feminism‘s fight is over, the battles won–policies and structures are still evolving. And we’re still so very, very hard on ourselves. We worry we aren’t measuring up, aren’t successful enough or a good enough parent or pretty enough or in shape enough or organic enough. All while mired in the juggle!

As we wrote in Undecided, women today are experiencing a collective bout of growing pains. And one way to ease those pains is to give up the chase for perfect, the attempt to have it all, and focus instead on, well, finding the life that’s right for us.

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When your best intentions go south, new research suggests that it wasn’t the devil that made you do it.  It was your brain.

Will power, the study found, is a finite resource, one that can be easily depleted.  Which is why, when faced with a “do-I-or-don’t-I” kind of decision, you might find it easier to do the right thing when you haven’t already used up your reserve of self-control by forgoing that extra cocktail earlier in the night.

Oddly reassuring, right?

The study, to be published January 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests that self-control is not a muscle that grows stronger with exercise, but is more like a finite pool.  And when it gets drained, say, by saying no to that delightful little black dress you just tried on but don’t necessarily need, you’re more likely to lose your cool when that guy in the silver SUV cuts you off on the freeway driving home.

Or, for that matter, to have that second glass of Malbec once you get there.

The study, co-authored by William Hedgcock, assistant professor of marketing at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, used brain imaging to scan people as they performed self-control tasks.  The fMRIs found that the brain consistently fired at full speed when tasked with recognizing a temptation, but once the part of the brain that actually manages self-control took over, it fired with less intensity the longer it continued to fight the good fight.

“Our results suggest self-control can be diminished by use,” Hedgcock tells us. “People have a hard time resisting temptation after prior acts of self-control. This can negatively affect people’s ability to maintain attention, resist tempting snacks, and resist purchasing on impulse.”

Call it good-girl fatigue?  Your brain may have no trouble recognizing the naughty options, but the more you try to fight them, the harder it can be to do what’s right.  Or why, as the authors write, when we work hard to pass up a second helping of lasagna, we might end up taking two pieces of cake at dessert.  And while the study found no significant gender differences, writes the study’s co-author Kathleen Vohs, associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, in an email from Amsterdam, “men and women often do adopt different goals (e.g., to lose weight for women [or to] pursue financial or sexual rewards for men) but they do so in similar ways.”

What’s hugely important about the study, writes Vohs, is that “we haven’t had a good understanding of how the brain changes when people engage in self-control. Which means being able to ultimately understand self-control in new ways.”

For years, researchers have known that there’s some significant work going on upstairs when we try to make decisions (whether or not those choices involve resisting temptation) about anything from buying a new pair of jeans to figuring out what to do with our lives.  Many studies we’ve referenced in our book and our blog, in fact, have shown that any kind of mental overload can mess with our ability to make good choices — or any at all.  A pivotal study by Harvard psychologist George Miller back in the 1950s found that the rational brain can only hold about seven chunks of information in working memory at any given time. Any more, and the conscious brain often just throws up its hands in defeat. What psychologists have figured out since, is that when the cognitive brain gets too full, decision making—if it gets done at all—gets appropriated by the emotions. Because the rational brain has, in effect, logged off, there’s less control over gut impulses.

Some fifty years after Miller’s essay, Stanford marketing professor Baba Shiv put an interesting spin on this epic battle between heart and mind. In his study, he asked students to memorize either seven digits or two, then afterward offered both groups their choice of a reward: fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake. What he found was that the seven-digit group went with their gut instincts. They overwhelmingly chose cake. The two-digit folks? They made the rational decision and chose a snack that wouldn’t spoil their dinner: nice and healthful fruit salad.

A number of other studies have also shown that making choices just plain wears us out, which brings us back to some earlier work on self-control by Kathleen Vohs.  Back in 2008, she found that folks who are faced with too many choices have a tough time staying focused or exerting self-control afterward.  In one part of that study, she found that college students asked to make a number of random choices earlier in the day ended up spending more time later playing video games or reading magazines — rather than studying for a test.

But back to this particular study, Hedgcock suggests that when the well of self-control runs dry, the only way to fill it back up is with time.  In other words, give yourself a break.

Or, what the hell, pour yourself a glass of wine.

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Flying solo is in–in a serious way. A New York Times Q&A with Eric Kilnenberg, NYU sociology professor and author of the new book “Going Solo,” leads with the facts:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Now that number is almost 50 percent. One in seven adults lives alone. Half of all Manhattan residences are one-person dwellings.

Kilnenberg has done his research. He spent a decade studying the phenomenon while working on his book, and he has all kinds of good explanations for those numbers. There’s less stigma than there once was around being single. People crave privacy and personal space–tough to preserve when you’re sharing a bathroom. From another piece he wrote several weeks ago,

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization–all prized aspects of contemporary life.

And Kilnenberg’s not the only one digging in. Melanie Kurtin enumerated what keeps her from committing here and Dominique Browning did the same thing here, while Kate Bolick’s much-discussed piece in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” leads with a simple confession:

In 2001, WHEN I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

And this, I think, really gets at the truth behind our reluctance to commit: to borrow–and tweak–a phrase from a long-ago presidential campaign, It’s too many choices, stupid!

When we’re told that we can have it all, that everything is on the table, why would we ever commit to anything? Even if we know we love the thing to which we’re committing, we can’t help but wonder about all the things we didn’t choose.

And I’m not just talking about relationships.

Too many options applies to commitment of the romantic sort, sure, but also to jobs and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. Passion or paycheck? Security or freedom? Long hair or short? High heels or hiking boots?

Deciding, by definition, means “to kill.” Choosing one thing means you’re killing the possibility of having the other. And when we’re raised on the idea that anything’s possible–and every option is available–we see choosing anything as settling. And, of course, it is–it’s settling for something less than everything.

When you decide to take one path, there’s a risk of missing out on something–something we often imagine to be glorious, the proverbial greener grass–waiting for us at the end of another. As Hannah, a woman we profile in Undecided, put it:

The grass is always greener. Like, do I want to move to San Francisco? Colorado? South America? Will life be any better in any of those places? Probably not. But it might be, so there’s that risk that I’m taking by not moving.

This mindset is so prevalent, some worry we have an entire generation of commitmentphobes on our hands. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is trying to get the in-between stage–the years when we try different jobs/relationships/cities/hairstyles on for size–designated as a distinct life stage, one he calls Emerging Adulthood. People don’t spent their entire career with one company anymore–the very idea sounds Flinstonian. Nor do they generally marry their high school sweethearts. To paraphrase Hannah, There’s that risk we’re taking by not checking out what else is out there. We have the whole world to explore first!

For women in particular, it’s excruciating. Because, in addition to that message–that we can do anything!–we were fed another, often from the women just a generation or two older than us, who weren’t afforded the same opportunity: that we’re so lucky that we can do anything. And combined, they leave many of us shouldering a load of responsibility. 

From a post I wrote some time ago,

This bounty of opportunity is so new that we were sent off to conquer it with no tools–just an admonishment that we’d best make the most of it.

We know we’re blessed to have all of these options. We get it. And so is it any wonder we want a shot at each and every one of them?

But therein lies the rub.

We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured in Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)

We want to do it all, to try it all before we buy! And that, I believe, is what’s at the root of the cold feet. Choices are hard. Damn hard. And every one of them entails a trade-off. The work is in accepting that–and in finding out who you are right down at your core, and figuring which of those trade-offs you can live with.

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Want to get a job? Change jobs? Get married? Get divorced? Have a baby? Lose the baby weight? Organize your closet? Come out of the closet? Streamline your life? Whatever it is that you’re after, in all likelihood–according to a piece that ran in the L.A. Times this weekend–there’s a coach for that.

Writer Mary MacVean cites everything from “the urge to do things perfectly… and the fear that we’re not up to the task” to the idea that we’re living in “an evolved and specialized world” and the fact that this modern world has many of us isolated from extended family that might have been nearby and available to help out with some of these conundrums as explanations for the coaching phenomenon. All of which make sense. But I, naturally, was particularly struck by this:

A world that can seem like it’s changing before our eyes also can fuel desire for a coach.

A couple of generations ago, most people made three or four important decisions that guided their lives… Today’s complex world requires decisions all the time: Should I move? Where? Is it time for me to change jobs? What’s the best way to invest for retirement? Will my child thrive in school? All these questions put people in unfamiliar territory…

[Evan Marc] Katz [a dating coach in Los Angeles] sees a paradox of choice that leaves many people frustrated. “In today’s society there are more choices, but nobody’s happier,” he said. Too many choices often lead to discontent, he said.

Well, we’ve certainly covered that. But I think it’s so interesting that, again, there’s a connection that comes up between perfection and too many choices. How the more choices there are, the more we feel that surely, one of those options must be the perfect one for us–and it’s our job to find it.

And then, when you couple that with “the more specialized world” she mentions–well, no wonder we want to enlist a professional every time we want to do anything. Say you want to do something relatively manageable, like organize your closet. But, you know, if you’re going to take the time to do it, you want to do it right. So, you do what any modern-day human with Internet access does, and consult the modern-day oracle (read: Google.) That’ll surely point you in the proper direction, right? Well, yeah–I’m sure that somewhere among the 685,000 results is the one that’s perfect for you.

Who wouldn’t throw up her hands and, rather than taking the time to sift through all those options (and watch as her entire wardrobe becomes outdated, thus cleverly negating the need for any organization at all), opt to enlist a pro? (Of course, if you go looking for a “closet organizing coach” on Google, you’ll have 423,000 virtual contenders vying for your business.)

It actually reminds me of something that happened back when I was in college. I was hiking with my (ahem, batshit-crazy, musician) boyfriend (we’ve all been there… right?) and some of his friends. The trail narrowed and became kind of rough at one point, before devolving into rocky, bushwhack-requiring overgrowth with no discernible path to speak of. Crazypants was at the front of the group; I was at the back. One of his friends who was in front of me asked if I wanted to scoot by, to move up to the front of the pack. I said something along the lines of “No, I like to follow, because then I don’t have to think about where to step.” He thought this was hilarious, and when I digested what I’d actually said, I was kind of appalled. Who wants to declare herself a follower?

And yet. Every once in a while, it’s nice to blindly put your faith in someone else; to forfeit the controls; to let them figure out which rocks are stable enough to step on, which trail is actually THE trail, while you just sit back and enjoy the ride, turning your own brain off for a spell, and trusting someone else with all the analysis.

And that’s well and good. Sometimes. A coach, a guide, hell–even a map can do wonders, but first we have to know where it is we’re trying to go. What we want. And that’s something that can’t be outsourced. No matter how nuanced our world, no matter how many choices we face, doesn’t the truest satisfaction come from getting to know ourselves–and then doing things accordingly? It doesn’t lessen the number of options, of course, but, it seems to me that getting to know yourself is the quickest route to getting to know what you want–and that’s surely the first step to getting it. It might be a rocky road; there might even be some bushwhacking involved. But, by taking it, you’ll be way more likely to wind up where you want to be.


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Well, I never thought of Alice In Wonderland as a particularly feminist fairy tale of a movie, what with Johnny Depp and all. Alice is, you might note, not much taller than a teapot. But HuffPo blogger Marcia Reynolds apparently sees past the Mad Hatter to find several models of womenpower jumping off the 3D screen:

What I found even more interesting than the 3D effects was the way the three female characters used their power. The Red Queen chopped the heads off of anyone who disagreed with her. The White Queen, due to her commitment to peace and the sanctity of life, could not defend herself. Alice had to learn how to claim her power, slay evil, be benevolent instead of brutish when the situation called for compassion and above all, take charge of her own life and destiny. The distinction in the uses of power is important to realize for all women, young and old.

Interesting, that. Reynolds goes on to mention other movies, too, where the girls, no longer “damsels in distress”, become take-charge chicks, who not only claim their independence, but their power, too. Even more interesting, she draws a comparison from the likes of Shrek’s Fiona to today’s twentysomething women:

How is this shift playing out in society? According to the Bem Sex Role Inventory, an increasing number of college-age women demonstrate qualities that are traditionally used to define masculinity, such as being self-reliant, independent, able to defend one’s beliefs, willing to take risks, and able to make decisions easily. However, these women also score high on traditionally feminine traits such as sociable, compassionate, understanding, and eager to work with others. The results demonstrate that women aren’t becoming more like men. They are becoming stronger as women.

As self-images go, darn good: You can do anything! You can do everything! The scary old dragon? Slay it yourself! And you can do it in Manolos… But here’s where the message slides down the rabbit hole: With all those options, with all those expectations, comes pressure. Pressure to commit to one option, when you now know something better might be waiting right around the corner. Pressure to please that iconic self, whether it be Alice or Fiona. Pressure to do it all — set up shop in the corner office, but don’t forget the cupcakes.

And pressure to be perfect when, in many cases, good enough is, you know, good enough. As we learned from Barry Schwartz, the guru of choice psychology, when options increase, expectations do, too. You tell yourself that with so many options, one of them must clearly be perfect. But when it it turns out to be merely good, you can’t help but be disappointed. You should have made a better choice.

That’s where we still have work to do: navigating the choices, dealing with the expectations, and understanding both how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go. Which, in a silly kind of way, brings us back to Alice and his Deppness:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,”said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.” *

* From “The Annotated Alice” by Lewis Carroll.  Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., p. 110

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Or, how to explain why we spend hours trying to decide between the red one or the blue one.

And sometimes walk away with nothing at all.

There are any one of a number of research studies out there on the science of choice. (You’ll read about many of them in our book, in fact. Stay tuned.) What you find out when you read them is that when we’re undecided, when we can’t figure out what to do with our lives, it’s not necessarily that we’re whiny and wishy-washy, but that some significant shit is going down in the space upstairs.

We’ve talked here about the “Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz’ pivotal book that suggests that, the more choices we have, the more likely we are to be disappointed in whatever we choose. We’ve also talked about “magical number seven”, another well-referenced study from the 1950s that suggests we mortals can only hold seven (plus or minus two) items in the gray matter at any given time. Explains a lot, that one.

But one of the most referenced studies on choice has to be the iconic jam study, where shoppers at Drager’s — a chi-chi Northern California grocery store where you find bottles of imported balsamic vinegar in a glass case under lock and key — were confronted with two displays of jam. One table held six jars, the other 24. The folks at the table of six chose one and walked away happy. But those faced with 24 may have enjoyed the extensive array in front of them — but left empty-handed.

One of the authors of that study was Sheena S. Iyengar, now of Columbia University, who has just come out with “The Art of Choosing: The hidden science of choice.” (In the journalist’s world, this here is called burying the lead. But I digress…) The book is a tapestry of anecdotes, science and pop culture to explain, yet again, why when it comes to choice, less is generally more.

This week, she talked to Salon.com about everything from arranged marriages (not necessarily a bad thing), to ballot order (it screwed Al Gore) and how a blind researcher — Iyengar lost her sight when she was a teenager — understands color (she has an easier time of it.). From that interview:

At one point in the book, you write about the ways names shape color preference. How did your blindness affect your ability to research color?

Because I’m blind, I’m not emotionally invested in a particular color or color combination. I’m much more able to discern how invested sighted people are in what looks good and how enormously subjective it is. It was my struggle with color that made me pay so much attention to it. Names of shades of particular colors kept changing — along with the idea of what color should go with what others.

Sighted people’s emotions are tied not just to what they’re seeing but what they’re feeling while they’re seeing. If you walk up to a sighted person and say that outfit just doesn’t go, or that their makeup is cakey, they’ll say, “How can you be so cruel?” It’s because you’re commenting on the person’s judgment. Now imagine if you’re blind, and you don’t have an emotional investment in that. If somebody tells me my makeup is caked, I’ll go, “Oh, I’ll fix it.”

Is it really true that Al Gore would have won the 2000 election if his name had been first on the ballot?

Oh yeah. This is research done by John Krosnick at Stanford. It’s estimated that Bush coming first on the ballot cost Gore 2 percent of the vote, which in that election was critical. Why do we vote for the first person? When you open up a menu in a restaurant the first dish serves as your reference point, when you interview people for a job the first person serves as a reference point; it’s just human nature.

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