Close a Few Doors

Coursera is offering “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior,” taught by Dan Ariely, as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) this spring, and I’ve registered. As preparation, I have been reading a couple of his books: The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty and Predictably Irrational. (Along the way, I’ve learned that I should have read Predictably Irrational initially, as it’s more interesting—at least, for me—and it forms a solid basis for The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty.) Ariely provides evidence for numerous irrational behaviors that we all engage in, and one in particular hit me as something I need to deal with more effectively.

Chapter 8, “Keeping Doors Open,” discusses how we have an irrational compulsion to keep all options open in just about every aspect of life:

We buy the expandable computer system, just in case we need all those high-tech bells and whistles. We buy the insurance policies that are offered with the plasma high-definition television, just in case the big screen goes blank. We keep our children in every activity we can imagine—just in case one sparks their interest in gymnastics, piano, French, organic gardening, or tae kwon do. …

We even attempt to keep relationships going when we need to let them end and move on. As Ariely states, “We have an irrational compulsion to keep doors open. It’s just the way we’re wired.” In fact, Ariely and a colleague performed experiments with college students that provided evidence that we will waste time and effort just to keep those doors open.

Even when we close doors to leave only two open, we tend to waste time by making that final decision between the two options extraordinarily difficult. Often, the choice is irrelevant: we’d be equally happy regardless of which option we chose, so weighing and considering … and reconsidering … and reconsidering yet again which is the better option really is unnecessary and, yes, irrational.

In the future, I promise myself to look at options but then to be willing to say, “Yes, this one sounds good; let’s go with it!” or “Let’s not even consider this anymore” much more rapidly. Options are great, but they can definitely stymie results.

I’m looking forward to joining Dan Ariely on March 25 for his course. Why don’t you attend, too? (It’s free!)

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