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Harder Choices Matter Less

31 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 August 2008 02:02AM

...or they should, logically speaking.

Suppose you're torn in an agonizing conflict between two choices.

Well... if you can't decide between them, they must be around equally appealing, right?  Equally balanced pros and cons?  So the choice must matter very little - you may as well flip a coin.  The alternative is that the pros and cons aren't equally balanced, in which case the decision should be simple.

This is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, obviously - more appropriate for choosing from a restaurant menu than choosing a major in college.

But consider the case of choosing from a restaurant menu.  The obvious choices, like Pepsi over Coke, will take very little time.  Conversely, the choices that take the most time probably make the least difference.  If you can't decide between the hamburger and the hot dog, you're either close to indifferent between them, or in your current state of ignorance you're close to indifferent between their expected utilities.

Does this have any moral for larger dilemmas, like choosing a major in college?  Here, it's more likely that you're in a state of ignorance, than that you would have no real preference over outcomes.  Then if you're agonizing, the obvious choice is "gather more information" - get a couple of part-time jobs that let you see the environment you would be working in.  And, logically, you can defer the agonizing until after that.

Or maybe you've already gathered information, but can't seem to integrate to a decision?  Then you should be listing out pros and cons on a sheet of paper, or writing down conflicting considerations and trying to decide which consideration is, in general, the most important to you.  Then that's the obvious thing you should do, which clearly dominates the alternative of making a snap decision in either direction.

Of course there are also biases that get stronger as we think longer - it gives us more opportunity to rationalize, for example; or it gives us more opportunity to think up extreme but rare/unlikely considerations whose affect dominates the decision process.  Like someone choosing a longer commute to work (every day), so that they can have a house with an extra room for when Grandma comes over (once a year).  If you think your most likely failure mode is that you'll outsmart yourself, then the obvious choice is to make a snap decision in the direction you're currently leaning, which you're probably going to end up picking anyhow.

I do think there's something to be said for agonizing over important decisions, but only so long as the agonization process is currently going somewhere, not stuck.

Comments (24)

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Comment author: Schizo 29 August 2008 03:09:15AM 4 points [-]

>The obvious choices, like Pepsi over Coke, will take very little time.

I think you made a typo there? Coke over Pepsi.

; )

Comment author: Lapsed_Lurker 18 August 2012 08:36:31AM 7 points [-]

In my recollection of just about any place I have eaten in the UK, there is no choice. They only ever have one cola or the other. Is this different in other parts of the world?

Comment author: [deleted] 25 October 2012 06:45:53PM 2 points [-]

I can barely tell them apart if I drink them one after another; if I were to drink one of them without the flavour of the other in my short-term memory I'm not even sure I could tell which one it is much better than chance.

Comment author: Doug_S. 29 August 2008 03:11:20AM 4 points [-]

When I had to choose which university to attend, I made my decision by rolling a die. Of course, it wasn't just any die. It was a d20! ;)

Comment author: -dan 29 August 2008 03:32:29AM 0 points [-]

Sophie's Choice?

Comment author: Polymeron 13 July 2011 11:01:39AM 6 points [-]

...Represents a choice where the internal simulation of any outcome is intolerable, providing a strong negative feedback for trying to choose it.

From a rational perspective there really isn't that much of a difference between the two stated options - I don't think any of us would morally condemn her for one and not the other. And abstaining from decision is almost immediately out the door in terms of desired outcome. So Eliezer's point pretty much stands.

Of course, it wouldn't really be fair to expect someone facing Sophie's Choice to stay fully rational... Some experiences are just too jarring.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 29 August 2008 03:45:52AM 9 points [-]

For minor choices, I like the strategy (I may actually have heard it here) "flip a coin, see how you feel about the result, and act on that feeling".

Formally, this is a good use for meta-probability assignments; the greater the variance in the probability distribution over [the difference in expected utilities after gathering more information], the greater the payoff of seeking information.

Comment author: pdf23ds 29 August 2008 04:05:19AM 0 points [-]

Of course, if you're trying to gather more information on two different universities on different sides of the country, it makes it a bit hard. And if you consider that a substantially large part of your experience will be determined by things that are impossible or difficult to predict in advance (like roommates, hall-mates, the quality of specific teachers) (and this applies doubly or more for graduate programs) perhaps in the end you *are* better off flipping that coin.

Fucking school.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 29 August 2008 04:07:38AM 2 points [-]

When I'm fighting in Go, there are often moves that look like they're either very good or very bad, and I have to think for a bit to determine which.

Comment author: steven 29 August 2008 04:38:11AM 1 point [-]

I've seen this claim from behavioral economists before. It shouldn't be hard to prove that the marginal expected value of information-gathering is *maximal* (for constant information-gathering opportunities) when two choices have equal expected value. Whatever "harder choices matter less" means, it should be consistent with that.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight3 29 August 2008 06:28:44AM 1 point [-]

flip a coin, see how you feel about the result, and act on that feeling

It's more amusing if you get the outside input from other people. (but it's biased)

Comment author: pdf23ds 29 August 2008 08:48:31AM 0 points [-]

Peter, in chess there are similar moves, and the reason is that the moves create a more tactical situation, a more unstable, more chaotic (in the technical sense) situation, and you have to actually go and calculate what would happen in concrete cases to decide. I believe they're often called moves that "create opportunities", for both sides.

Comment author: retired_urologist 29 August 2008 11:43:18AM 4 points [-]

"When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong." -- Richard Dawkins

Comment author: Zubon 29 August 2008 12:21:18PM 0 points [-]

For minor choices, I like the strategy (I may actually have heard it here) "flip a coin, see how you feel about the result, and act on that feeling".

Same. It is fun to see others' reactions to that. Because what to order at a restaurant is such a momentous decision that a coin flip is inappropriate? Nah, probably just that it is an odd thing to do. But the first time you take someone else through that exercise is great, as they realize they already knew what they wanted the answer to be.

Comment author: Aron 29 August 2008 02:14:51PM -1 points [-]

I blinked and almost missed this.

Comment author: Sean_C. 29 August 2008 02:39:03PM 0 points [-]

The classic example is picking people for a sports team. The difference in performance from the very top superstars is much greater than the guys who just make the team.

So the superstars are obvious choices, but there isn't a whole lot of difference between the guys who just make the team and the guys who just don't.

Comment author: Dagon 29 August 2008 07:40:56PM 1 point [-]

The opposite is worth pointing out as well. Decisions that seem easy because they're small, but are repeated many times may add up to far more important than the difficult, rare ones.

Comment author: Nic_C-L 31 August 2008 12:04:55AM 0 points [-]

I came up with this whole thing some years ago and dubbed it the Universal Theory of Decisions' which, stated in one line, is: A decision is either easy or it doesn't matter'.

There's a corollary, though, which I've never managed to get as succinct as the first bit: If the decision isn't easy and does (seem to) matter, then you're thinking about the wrong decision. This covers the situations like getting stuck deciding which university to go to. The real decision is usually something like 'do I have enough information to make this decision?', to which the answer is No, so you just get on and get more information: no agonising required.

Someone pointed out recently that this Universal Theory of Decisions is closely related to Susan Blackmore's 'no free-will' approach outlined in The Meme Machine. Whether it is or not, I've found that the application frees up my time and mental energy to get on with things that are more productive. I do occasionally need to be reminded that I'm stressing over a decision that doesn't matter, though. But then I guess that means I'm still human.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 31 August 2008 04:43:39PM 0 points [-]

I disagree. There's two ways choices can be hard. The difference is in the expected disutility of the negation. Low disutility: it's difficult because you want them both about equally. Flip a coin. High disutility: you desperately don't want to abandon either.

In that second case, it's worth trying to bisect the dilemma. "Might it not be possible to be a multi-class scientist/florist, even if it slows me gaining levels?"

Comment author: Mike_Blume 31 August 2008 09:45:35PM 0 points [-]

Douglas Knight:

It's more amusing if you get the outside input from other people. (but it's biased)

Not at all - just internally number the choices, and ask a friend to choose 1, 2, or 3. Then, again, react to the result emotionally and act on your reaction. My girlfriend and I do this all the time.

Comment author: William_Schlieper 02 September 2008 03:02:00AM 0 points [-]

I wouldn't trust random numbers from people, though. Making random numbers is nigh impossible for the human brain.

Comment author: Polymeron 13 July 2011 10:50:36AM 1 point [-]

I think that agonizing over choices generally represents an attempt to internally simulate the outcome, which is uncertain. This is true for both the restaurant example (I visualize myself eating the hotdog. Does that seem pleasurable?), and the college (I visualize myself with the degree, possibly working in the field). If utility is high enough but uncertainty is still high, then it makes sense to continue simulating possible branches and weighing them in. Though I agree that at that point a well-structured way of doing that is preferable.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 August 2012 11:11:34AM 1 point [-]

The problem is when gathering more information can be costly. If you're undecided about whether to pursue a romantic relationship with A or with B (who know each other, and neither of whom is polyamorous, gathering more info about A (if done wrong) can harm your chances with B and vice versa.

Comment author: cousin_it 22 August 2014 10:16:49PM *  4 points [-]

So, uh, why did evolution make us agonize over choices at all, if you say they don't matter? I think they matter. This reminds me of my exchange with Wei:

Why do we divide possible news into "good" and "bad", and "hope" for good news? Does that serve some useful cognitive function, and if so, how?

About the cognitive function of "hope": it makes evolutionary sense to become all active and bothered when a big pile of utility hinges on a single uncertain event in the near future, because that makes you frantically try to influence that event.

It seems to me that we agonize over hard choices for a similar reason. A big pile of utility hinges on some uncertainty, and we frantically try to reduce that uncertainty.