Saturday, April 14, 2007

Arrrghh! Choices!


I can't decide whether I love having choices or hate it.

I do realize the world would be a rather boring place if things just came your way, without you having to choose. But that would make life so much simpler. Strangely, and perhaps justifiably, some people do believe that that is exactly what happens. You can read about it here. There is no free will they say. The idea there is that you don't really make any of your choices yourself... you were bound to make them. I can't be sure whether that is true, but if it is, I so wish this choice which was already made for me would not be so encrypted. I mean, if it's already made, why can't I know what I will choose.

Why, for instance, can't I decide which university I want to attend? It's obviously an exciting choice to make, and I am not complaining about the fact that I even have the choice. Most people will tell you that they were really glad they got only one admit, so that they were saved the trouble and trauma of making a choice. But I have five options, and hell, I love having to choose!

What complicates the decision tree way more than required is the fact that most of us have no idea about what we want. If we did, it would be as simple as traversing a complete binary tree with 2^n leaves, where n depends on the number of parameters that decide the outcome. The problem is, most of us average minds aren't aware of what we seek. I am not sure if what I want is even static. It's a completely crazy, indeterministic function of what I encounter each moment. So there goes my binary tree... or should I say there grows my binary tree... exponentially too! And even if we knew exactly what we wanted, the optimal choice is never available.

Of course, the binary tree is assuming there are just two answers to a parameter-deciding-question. For most situations, you can break up the parameters in a way that they would be yes-no questions. Let me explain, for example, the decision tree when I go to buy a pair of shoes. There are the obvious yes-no questions, such as "yes I want the shoe to fit". Some of you, especially the men, may find this a rather silly question. Of course you want the shoe to fit you, unless you're buying it for someone else. But the truth is, that this highly efficient question reduces the search space by way more than you can imagine; in my case, it leaves about ten pairs per shop. Add to that "yes I want them to look decent" (notice, I did not say good), and that eliminates some shops altogether. In the remaining, the choice reduces to about two pairs. The above questions must never be coupled with "yes I want them to be comfortable" and "yes I want them to suit the occasion", or else you'd never end up buying anything. And we still haven't gone into the cost factor. If I ever found a pair of shoes that fit all those parameters, they'd be so priceless, I'd never wear them. One of my friends did find one like that... but when I say one, I literally mean it; the other shoe in the pair was missing! So you see, you almost know what you want, but that's never one of your options.

Even if I have a limited set of options, and construct a tree such that the leaves are only the things available to me, then I end up with a new problem. With only "available options" to choose from, there is almost always a compromise between one parameter or another. Such as, let me choose a slightly lower ranked college if I get a better overall experience in terms of my education. This decision, since it is not a strict yes-no, is really difficult to take, as the one question that keeps flashing in my head when I choose to compromise on something is "what if I live to repent it?" I mean, how do I predict what I will need more in my future; and even if I can, how can I do it accurately.

And all this while, this choice which is already made is not helping me at all in choosing which choice is already made! Of course, once my conscious mind has made a decision, those scientists will come around with a map of my brain and say, "There! We knew you'd choose that all the while!" Not much help then, is there? So here's where this beautiful mechanism called intuition steps in. I don't know how my intuition knows what the right choice is, maybe it somehow communicates with the factor that has already made my choice for me. But as far as I remember, whenever I have felt strongly about something and gone by what I have felt, I have almost never repented. That's it then! I know which university I am going to, and I definitely know which pair of shoes I am taking there.

6 comments:

Yashita said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO6XEQIsCoM

KT said...

The theory of optimal decision making. Quite difficult really. You have not discussed the issue of whether a person will choose to traverse the entire depth of other branches or just get an approximate value for that branch and base his decision on it. Good post.

Om said...

next time, write about how to choose a girlfriend (or in ur case, boyfriend (perhaps :p)).. that would be even more interesting ;-)

Eeshan said...

hi there, these lines are a bit contradictry don't u think?

"I have five options, and hell, I love having to choose!"
and
"The problem is, most of us average minds aren't aware of what we seek."

Renuka said...

@Eeshan: I love that I have 5 admits! I can't complain really... its good to have that kind of a choice.
The second sentence is the reason why making choices becomes so difficult.. cos many of us don't really know what we want, and hence, can't decide what would be best for us.
Did that make it clearer?

@Om: Yes, I have been thinking of writing about that for some time now. I get that asked that question more often than you can imagine!

Kaarta said...

You said it! I spent the entire month of April contemplating whether or not to give up a university located on a scenic island with beaches, for a higher-ranked one in a (comparitively) dull city. The non-beach one won in the end, I guess we love to be miserable for the choices that we make, and hope that current misery brings future happiness - which it rarely does.

And true, it is intuition which finally helps us make the call, rather than a complete run through the decision tree (if that is possible).

See ya at Tech! Co-ordinates = (502A, GLC)