DUCKWORTH: He’s such a mensch.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: why do we have such a hard time making decisions?
MAUGHAN: You’re giving me more problems by giving me so many choices!
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MAUGHAN: Hey Angela, we have an interesting question today and I am ready to dive in if you are.
DUCKWORTH: I’m ready.
MAUGHAN: Okay. “Hi, Angela and Mike. NSQ has broached decision-making a bunch of times, but I don’t think you’ve focused on the phenomenon of well-informed, often otherwise successful people not making decisions, otherwise known as analysis paralysis. So many brilliant people in my life are capable of making the most data-driven and logical arguments and analyze things so thoroughly, yet ultimately cannot choose a path forward.” This question’s from Alex, and he keeps going, but I have to admit that I’m already a little uncomfortable, given that I think he’s describing me.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe he meant to say, “Hi, Mike.”
MAUGHAN: Seriously. “And, Mike, I know more about you than you think.” Okay, Alex continues: “It seems to me to fall into two broad categories. They either get stuck because they make such strong arguments, both pro and against each course of action. Or, what seems more common, they debate with themselves and others and research things to such absurdity that sometimes the actions become irrelevant due to time or loss of opportunity.” He then gives a couple examples, “like ordering dinner when you read 45 minutes of Yelp reviews, Google exotic dishes, and then decide it’s too late and just eat a frozen bagel.” Or, “how difficult it can be to buy a car because you look at every single possible optionality and then never buy anything.” So, as Alex then says, “What gives? Are we arguing ourselves into an early grave?”
DUCKWORTH: Wow, what a great question. You know, it’s not the first time I’ve heard the expression “paralysis by analysis.” And can you guess, Mike, whom that expression can be attributed to — at least for me, like, who introduced this impossible to forget phrase into my life?
MAUGHAN: I would guess Barry Schwartz.
DUCKWORTH: You know, that would be such a good guess. Barry Schwartz, our friend at Swarthmore, talks a lot about this topic, but I’m thinking of Will Smith. He tells the story in his memoir of being a very young Will Smith a certain deal has come his way. I don’t know if it was The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or was it his first hip-hop recording contract, but some very senior Hollywood producer takes him aside and says, like, “Will, there’s one way to fail in this industry, and that is paralysis by analysis.” And it was basically like, just stop thinking and go forward. So anyway, it seems to be a topic of fascination for Alex and Will Smith and maybe Barry Schwartz also.
MAUGHAN: And, Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH: And Mike Maughan! Yes, why don’t you go full on confessional mode? I didn’t think of you as this kind of person. I thought of you as very decisive.
MAUGHAN: This is what’s so weird. I’m incredibly decisive about most things, and then terrible at a few. So I will never forget back in 2009, I was living in Arizona, and I was trying to buy a new car. I was succeeding wildly in my career, I was making all these decisions, and I could not —
DUCKWORTH: You couldn’t buy a new car?
MAUGHAN: I could not buy a new car because it felt like such a big decision that I couldn’t — I don’t know if I couldn’t commit or figure it out. But in 2009, there was a Super Bowl commercial for Cars.com.
DUCKWORTH: I remember these commercials. It was like when Cars.com was a revolutionary idea, I think.
MAUGHAN: And they have a character in this commercial named David Abernathy. And they’re like, “David Abernathy was so confident he could do anything. At birth, he congratulated the doctor on a perfect delivery. At age 3, he was making PowerPoint presentations, convincing his parents to let him stay up later. At age 12, he ran into burning buildings to save pets. At age 24, he performed open heart surgery at a crowded opera house with nothing but a ballpoint pen! But at 25, he was paralyzed by the inability to buy and choose a car.” And my friends and I are watching this and they all break out into laughter and they’re like, “That’s you.”
DUCKWORTH: That’s Mike Maughan.
MAUGHAN: You cannot — no matter what other good decisions you can make in your life, no matter how decisive you are at work, no matter how able you are in these other areas — you are suffering from massive analysis paralysis and you can’t make decisions.
DUCKWORTH: So wait, what happens at the end of the commercial?
MAUGHAN: Well, then they’re like, “Cars.com. We make it easy to buy a car.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes. And then what happens at the end of your story? Did you go carless?
MAUGHAN: I actually don’t know what the breakthrough was, but I eventually bought a car. But I kid you not, I’m at the car dealership and I have so many papers in the backseat of my car —
DUCKWORTH: So you had a car, you were buying a different car? I just want to get the full movie scene in my head.
MAUGHAN: Absolutely, so I’m going from a very old stick shift Honda Accord. And I buy a 2004 Toyota 4Runner with a tape deck, just to share with you how fancy this was.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was gonna say, that’s how old the car is. Wait, a tape deck like the kind that has a cassette tape?
MAUGHAN: A cassette player, yeah. The last year Toyota ever made one, which is ridiculous. But just to emphasize Alex’s point, I am accused by the salesperson of being a secret shopper because there are so many pieces of paper printed with, like, 15 different types of cars and notes on all of them comparing this feature to that feature. And he said, “You’re a secret shopper. Get out of here.” And I was like, “No, no I’m not.”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, now I need to know, what is a secret shopper? Is that like being a secret Santa?
MAUGHAN: With much less joy that you’re bringing to people. Secret shopper just means that I am working for someone, maybe for Toyota, and I go shop for a car from Toyota, and I’m secretly representing the big boss just to see how well the salespeople do and judge them.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, wait, I have never heard that expression. You didn’t make that up? It’s a thing. Really? Fascinating, what a great job.
MAUGHAN: I also think maybe it’s not even always the organization, but maybe competitors will go secret shop other people’s stores. But they do both. I was a secret shopper once.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, so I was doing an internship in Las Vegas one summer during undergrad working for this real estate company and they were taking apartment buildings and turning them into condos and selling them off individually. And since I’m brand new, my very first week, I went as a secret shopper to all their different properties to let them know how their salespeople were doing and pretended to buy condos. So look, I was a secret shopper for condos, but definitely not for Toyota. I was just trying to buy a car.
DUCKWORTH: My guess is that secret shoppers don’t suffer from analysis paralysis, but obviously we should talk more about what that is.
MAUGHAN: There’s this idea of information overload, or choice overload. I mentioned Barry Schwartz, who talked about decision making and the paradox of choice. I think a maybe more approachable thing that we talk about nowadays is Netflix. So if people hop onto Netflix, they will browse forever. And so Netflix came up with this new feature a couple years back called the “Play Something” button. So you can just —
DUCKWORTH: Wait, there’s a “Play Something” button on Netflix?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, so you can just log in and push “play something” and then it will alleviate this — what one person in The Wall Street Journal called a “modern malady of the so-called choice fatigue experience when deciding what to watch next on a streaming service.”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, I don’t have that button, I don’t think. Maybe I didn’t notice that.
MAUGHAN: That’s because you’re probably good at making decisions and I, on the other hand, will scroll for 30 minutes and then decide just — I think this is why people just go back and watch Friends or The Office or something like that. Because it’s so tried and true that you know you’re going to get something good, even if the Netflix algorithm is so good that they’re going to know what you’re going to like with, they say, 98 percent accuracy.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so let’s back up a little bit and talk about what this could mean. Like what is this analysis paralysis — or, you know, in Will Smith’s words, “paralysis by analysis”? I think the first behavioral scientist to really think about this carefully was Herb Simon. I think he won the Nobel Prize in economics, but he had his career at Carnegie Mellon University and he was like the intellectual grandparent of a lot of what we now think of as modern behavioral economics and just human nature from an economic perspective. So Herb Simon, who truly was brilliant, had this expression — he called it “maximizing versus satisficing.” And I know we’ve talked a little bit about this on the show before, but the history is really relevant here because the rational model of human nature is that we maximize our well being. We maximize our utility, as economists would say. So, we have options, like you could buy this car with a tape deck. You could buy this other car that doesn’t have a tape deck, but maybe it has better upholstery. I mean, you have an option set. Maybe you have two, maybe you have five, maybe you have a hundred different cars that you could buy. Now, of course, you have many more than a hundred because it’s like all people who are selling cars.
MAUGHAN: Right, there’s an infinite number of iterations within that.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, because you don’t have to go down to the local dealer anymore. You know, I guess that was part of the invention of Cars.com or Netflix, right? You know, I remember — gosh, we do sound so old, but like, I remember going down to the videotape store. I think I remember before Blockbuster came on the scene, there would just be this, like, little store that was around the corner from the sushi restaurant that my parents liked to go to. And so we would then go to the video store that was nearby, and it’s just whatever was left. I mean, usually there were, like, three possible movies, five, maybe ten, you know, counting the ones that you’ve not seen yet. So the idea is that if you’re an economist, you think, well, people are gonna maximize their utility. They’re just gonna select the best option. And what Herb Simon said is that, yeah, except for, that’s not possible. It’s simply not possible for a human brain to compute the expected utility, the benefits minus the cost, of all these different options. And he invented this expression called “satisficing,” which is basically the idea that instead of maximizing, you “satisfice” — you look for a course of action that is good enough, it is satisfactory. And he thought this was a much better descriptor of many decisions, not all.
MAUGHAN: So I remember reading this parody news site. And it — instead of making this wedding announcement that, like, “So-and-so has found the love of his life,” it said, “So-and-so has decided to stop searching for better options and is satisfied with this person.” So that’s the least romantic way of talking about satisficing — I mean, it’s really terrible to talk about in terms of love instead of picking a video — but is that sort of what we’re talking about?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah! I mean, when you choose to be with somebody for the rest of your life, some would argue that you may say that you’re maximizing, but you can only be satisficing because you haven’t met everybody on the planet. But the point that Simon wants to make is that we shouldn’t be apologetic about this, like, it’s just the nature of life. So here’s one sentence from Herb Simon’s original work in 1947: “Simplification may lead to error, but there’s no realistic alternative in the face of the limits on human knowledge and reasoning … The limits of attention simply don’t permit everything to be attended at once.” In other words, you can’t meet every person, and even if you’re deciding about a car and all the cars are available to you on Cars.com or the equivalent, you don’t have enough attention. So the scarcity is not in money. It’s not even necessarily in time, although I think it’s close. It’s that you don’t have enough cognitive bandwidth to process everything.
MAUGHAN: I wonder if it was easier to maximize when you were at the video store — so we had the same idea growing up. It was called Video Verne’s. We walked down the street.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, was it run by Verne?
MAUGHAN: I don’t know who Verne was, never met him, but it was called Video Verne’s. It was the pre-Blockbuster. But if there are only three choices, it feels like it’s much easier for me to maximize than today, when there are an unlimited number of choices.
DUCKWORTH: And how do you feel about that? Let me ask you, like, how do you feel about the possibility of watching everything, or nearly everything? Like, what is that experience for you as a consumer?
MAUGHAN: I think that it’s overwhelming. I want fewer options. And I feel like fewer options allows me to be happier with my choices and allows me to make them more easily.
DUCKWORTH: So if there were, like, a — it doesn’t even have to be cheaper. Maybe it’s an even more expensive version of a Netflix subscription. And instead of getting to that screen where it’s like, “These are the things that are trending!”
MAUGHAN: They charge you more for fewer options.
DUCKWORTH: Would you conceivably think about subscribing to that? Where they were like, “Hi Mike, here are three movies that you could watch tonight.”
MAUGHAN: Oh jeesh, I mean, everything in my brain says no, because why would I pay more for less? But everything in my brain also says that would be so helpful. You know it’s interesting, I think they have these boxes that you can buy for fashion and all of these startups where it’s like, “Hey, here’s generally who I am. Here’s what I wear.”
DUCKWORTH: They send you some clothing, like a few options.
MAUGHAN: Right. It’s like a couple of shirts, a couple of pairs of pants or shorts, maybe a jacket or something. And every month you just get, “Here’s what we have handpicked for you. If you don’t like it, send it back.” I’ve never done it, but it takes so much of the choice out of it. And they basically say, “Hey, we know you because you’ve shared all of these preferences. One, we’re going to dress you better than you dress yourself. But two, we’re going to take all the analysis paralysis out of it.” I actually love that idea. So maybe I would pay more for a Netflix service that only gave me —
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, maybe they could send you DVDs, Mike.
MAUGHAN: Oh, gosh. Then I’d need to buy a DVD player.
DUCKWORTH: And that would be very hard to do these days. But, look, we’d mentioned Barry Schwartz. Do you know Barry, by the way?
MAUGHAN: I’ve never met Barry Schwartz. No.
DUCKWORTH: He’s such a mensch. You would love Barry. So, Barry, for a very long time, lived not far from my house, kind of down the street, in Philadelphia. So, I got to spend a lot of time with him. And he is a psychologist, but he’s also really kind of a philosopher by temperament. And so he came to believe that the modern society in which we live, where we have uncountable number of things to watch or to read or to eat or to do — he called it “the tyranny of choice” or the “tyranny of freedom.”
MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh, I actually love that. That’s how I feel!
DUCKWORTH: I know, such a good expression. You’ve been tyrannized.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, it feels like we should be grateful, but sometimes it feels a little like tyranny.
DUCKWORTH: It feels like the opposite, right? He also coined the term, “the paradox of choice.” So, analysis by paralysis is maybe something that comes from the paradox of choice. And here’s a story that Barry used to tell. So I think he was shopping for jeans and he was in The Gap. So Barry goes in and he’s like, “I’d like a pair of jeans.” And they’re like, “Okay great. Do you want acid wash? Do you want a dark blue wash? Do you want it to be, like, ripped? Do you want not ripped? Do you want a loose fit? Do you want a boot cut? Do you want slim fit? Do you want a little elastic in it? Do you want —” And he was like, “I just — my jeans have worn out and I just want a pair of jeans. I want to leave this store with my problem solved.”
MAUGHAN: And you’re giving me more problems by giving me so many choices.
DUCKWORTH: You’re giving me more problems! So Barry was well aware of what economists would say. It’s like, “Well, logically, you should be happy that The Gap has so many different pairs of jeans. Mike Maughan should be happy that he could watch anything on Netflix. Angela Duckworth should be happy that she could buy any book in the world and have it electronically within 10 seconds.” Like, that should make it more likely that I read something before I go to bed. But the work that Barry then went on to — and he was very much a fan of Herb Simon, so he actually even had a scale that was the Maximizer versus Satisficer scale. So, Barry was aware of all that. And he felt like in addition to the stark fact that we have these little brains and we cannot process all the information about all these different options, he also felt there was like an emotional side quite apart from the bandwidth.
MAUGHAN: And he felt like maybe economists, who are bad with feelings, didn’t take that into account.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I can’t speak for Barry, but I would speak for myself in saying that I do think sometimes economists don’t seem to be very good psychologists. Like, to ask the basic question: how does it feel to be with a car salesman who’s offering you 50 different options? I should ask my brother-in-law who sells cars, like, do you show people 50, you know, 100, 150 different options because you can get anything shipped to the lot? Or do you try to sell them on a very small number of options? But Barry could explain the fact that there’s probably some ideal number of options that is smaller than infinity. He didn’t want to say there was a magic number in particular, but he wanted to say it was more than zero and less than infinity.
MAUGHAN: That’s a pretty safe range, by the way.
DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s the thing. Economists might say that infinity is the right option. Like, it’s just always better to have more. There’s no reason why you would ever want a strict choice.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, I mean, that’s where theory versus practicality runs right into each other.
DUCKWORTH: Or psychology, right? So, he says, “Look, imagine you’ve got this horizontal axis and it’s like the number of choices that you have,” you know, how big the option set is. And then he has this vertical axis, which is like benefits at the top and costs at the bottom. And basically what he wants to say is that the benefits of the bigger choice set are better. Like, it is technically better to have 100 cars to choose from but there’s sort of diminishing marginal returns. Like how much better is it to have 100 versus 99? How much better is it to have 99 versus 98? So, like, after a certain point, it doesn’t really matter how many additional car options you have.
MAUGHAN: So at some point the number of options kind of levels out.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. It looks like a gentle hill slope. And then he has another curve, which is: what are the costs? What is the downside of having three options, five options, 50 options, a hundred options? And at first I think nobody really saw any downside. They’re like, “I don’t know,” aside from maybe having to think too much. But Barry wanted to say there’s an emotional tax. When he leaves The Gap and he has his jeans in his shopping bag, if he’s left, you know, one other option behind, there’s a small emotional cost. But if he leaves The Gap and there are 49 pairs of jeans that he didn’t buy, now he’s really thinking, “Did I really get the best one? Maybe I should have gotten the acid wash? I don’t know. How about the five-pocket jeans?”
MAUGHAN: Right, you’re just constantly questioning, “Did I do the right thing?” You’re — what do they call that? Buyer’s remorse, maybe a little bit? Where you’re like, maybe there was something else I could have gotten instead.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. So there’s this uncertainty, there’s this regret. So basically, as Barry would draw this graph, the more options you have, the greater the cost. And there is no diminishing marginal — you know, that curve just keeps going. And so he would say that if you combine those two curves, it looks like a parabola. And Mike, you want to know what’s the peak, what’s the optimal number of choices, this little hill in the middle when you add those two curves together. But, Barry would say it depends. But the big point is: if you are selling cars, or you are renting movies to people, or if you’re Mike Maughan trying to make a decision, to know that infinity is not the right answer, that there is some smaller number of options that’ll make us happy. And it isn’t quite intuitive. I think that a lot of people would say that they, for example, want to date the maximal number of people. If you said, “Hey, here’s a dating app. Do you want to only see some of the people or do you want to see every possible option there is for your soulmate?” I think a lot of people would say, like, “I want to see everyone.”
MAUGHAN: I think that’s true to a point. But then I think we sometimes realize it doesn’t work, which is why then people will go to a matchmaking service or someone else to say, “Hey, I’ve tried this for years. I’ve swiped right on a million people. It never works out. Can someone help me and narrow the choice set for me?” And so I think you’re absolutely right. Intuitively, I hate the idea that someone else is going to make choices for me and not present all the subsets because I — in my heart, in my head, as erroneous and irrational as it may be — think, well, obviously I’m the best person in my life to make a decision about me. Therefore, how dare you limit my number of options?
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: how can you overcome analysis paralysis and make a decision?
DUCKWORTH: There may be an infinite number of strategies for managing your sock inventory, but this was one.
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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about analysis paralysis.
DUCKWORTH: I think when you’re talking about societies that have too much choice, Barry Schwartz would be very quick to point out that this is a curse of very wealthy countries.
MAUGHAN: Only people who have too much choice want less.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so he did this study of choice overload, as it’s called — like, having too many choices — in six different countries. So they not only looked at choice in the United States, they also looked at Brazil, China, India, Japan, and Russia. And they gave questionnaires to people in these different countries and they weren’t just undergraduates. To their credit, they recruited a diverse sample of adults and they asked them about things like soft drinks, like, how many choices they had. And then also cars, like you were saying, homes, you know, bigger decisions. And sometimes life domains, like, choices of a doctor, you know, job choices, like how many possibilities there were for them professionally, educational choices —
MAUGHAN: We should note some of these are big decisions, a.k.a. what profession or home, and some are very small, what soda to buy.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and for each of these domains, what the researchers did is they asked people three particular things. They’re like: how many choices do you have? What do you think the ideal number of choices would be? And how satisfied are you with what you have right now? And basically what they found is that across the six countries — I mean, in general, you know, United States is really an exception, but in general, people feel like they don’t have as many choices as they want. They have too few options about half of the time. And then about a third of the time, they have exactly the number of options. And then, in terms of having choice overload, that’s only 14 percent of the time. So overall, people are feeling like they want more choices when you look around the world, at least in these other countries. In the United States, it’s different. The number of people who feel like they have too many choices, they’re suffering from the paradox of choice is larger, but still, that’s only 28 percent of the time. In other words, if there is such a thing as the tyranny of freedom, there’s also the tyranny of not having enough choices. And especially around the world, but even in the United States, Americans feel like for about 40 percent of their choices, they’re just at the right point. Like, “I just have exactly the number of choices I want to have.” And for 32 percent they feel like they would like more choices. They are feeling choice deprived. So even in the United States, but especially in other countries, maybe there’s a little bit of the tyranny of freedom, but there’s a lot of the tyranny of not enough.
MAUGHAN: I actually love this framing that you’ve just brought up here. I do think that’s such a healthy construct because there are many areas of my life where I probably don’t feel like I have enough optionality. So it’s not that my whole life is this tyranny of choices. I’ll just say that at work or something else, I’m pretty good at making a decisive desic — can I say that? Decisive decision? Is that the same thing?
DUCKWORTH: You can make a decisive decision. I think you can say that, as opposed to a waffly decision.
MAUGHAN: But I’ll give you another example for middle- to high-income Americans with so many options. I’m trying to remodel my home right now. I’ve lived in it for about a year. And I’ve done nothing. And you want to know why?
DUCKWORTH: Because there are too many choices?
MAUGHAN: Analysis paralysis or paralysis by analysis, however you want to phrase it. Yes, because there’s so many options.
DUCKWORTH: For, like, what kind of thing? Like, paint?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, for everything.
MAUGHAN: For me, it starts with what contractor do I use? What designer do I use? What if I get the wrong contractor who — everybody ends up hating their contractor anyway. So it just, like — it spirals. I have this designer finally. I just said, “Listen, I only want two choices for everything.”
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “Hello. My name is Mike Maughan, and I don’t want you to give me too many choices.”
MAUGHAN: Yeah, trouble is she comes with two choices. I’m like, “I don’t like either one. We need options.”
DUCKWORTH: Maybe you need to show her this Barry Schwartz graph and you’re like, “Look, the peak isn’t two. It’s probably farther to the right than two. Try seven.”
MAUGHAN: I know, but I’m the one who told her two, because I’m the one who felt like I couldn’t make more decisions.
DUCKWORTH: How did you find the designer? How did you decide among all the designers there are in Utah?
MAUGHAN: I ultimately went with someone that I’d known for many, many years, because I just said, “I can’t make a decision.”
DUCKWORTH: You know, I think this is a little bit how the world works. I mean, again, it’s a bit of a paradox. Like, the proliferation of all the people that you could hire or work with or date makes it more likely that we will rely on these really idiosyncratic personal connections because we’re overwhelmed.
MAUGHAN: Right. So we make decisions based off of weird criteria that maybe, are, you’re saying, idiosyncratic.
DUCKWORTH: It’s not necessarily even criteria. It’s like, “I know this person. I guess I’ll go with them.” I mean, this is one of the reasons why we get advice from our friends. You know, I get a lot of my best ideas from just copying what Katy Milkman does. And Katy, of course, is one of my BFFs and my collaborator in a lot of the research we do. I mean, I’m not kidding. I just think for so many decisions — I don’t know if this extends to like car purchases and the choice of paint for redoing the living room, but for so many things, I just copy paste from what she does to my life. And I’ve done that with other people too. Like, I remember being in some faculty meeting and — I don’t know how this topic came up, it must have been in the chit chat before the actual agenda got underway, but we were talking about socks and like how, you know, you buy socks, but who ever throws out socks, ‘cause when are socks ever truly useless, so your sock drawer just gets bigger and bigger, and now you can’t find the socks that you really want, because you’ve got all the old socks that are sort of, like, taking up room. And there was this professor who just seemed to have so much of her life together. She’s just, like, the world’s most efficient person. And she said, “Oh, I have a rule, which is that I don’t let myself buy a pair of socks without throwing out a pair, like, giving it away.” and I was like, “Oh, that’s so great.” Look, Mike, there may be an infinite number of strategies for managing your sock inventory, but this was one. And I was like, “Great rule. I’m just going to copy it.” So I think this idea of copy pasting — which, by the way, Katy and I were so fond of because she does it too. She just copy pastes things out of other people’s lives. “Personality plagiarism” was the pet phrase that I liked to use when we were doing research on it because we were like, “We should study it.” And it turns out that, indeed, maybe in part because we’re overwhelmed by all the things that we could do, people tend to like to just do what their friends advise them to do.
MAUGHAN: I actually love this.
DUCKWORTH: And I think it’s really a good strategy. Like, why not?
MAUGHAN: And there are certain people you trust. I remember when I first had to buy my first washer and dryer, I thought to myself, “I am not going to research all this.” I called my sister-in-law, who I trust. I said, “What do you have? Do you like it?” I bought it. I didn’t look at a single other option. Because I just knew —
DUCKWORTH: You didn’t go to like Wirecutter. You didn’t go to, like, Consumer Reports. You were just like, if it’s good enough for my sister-in-law —
MAUGHAN: Does Megan like this? Great.
DUCKWORTH: If it’s good enough for Megan. You know what? I’m actually currently buying a washing machine-dryer.
MAUGHAN: Okay, I’m gonna give you Megan’s phone number and — call her.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t even need — I just need the —
MAUGHAN: I’ll just take a picture of mine and you can order those. I love them. They’ve been great.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly!
MAUGHAN: I love it. I’ve got a buddy named Brennan — I know we’re going back to cars, you know I couldn’t make a decision — eventually that 2004 Toyota 4Runner wasn’t running anymore, and my friend Brennan, I tell him I’m looking at a new car, and he said “Buy this one. I know you, it’s perfect for you, you will love it.” And you know what I did? I didn’t even test drive it. I went and ordered that car sight unseen, which, looking back, seems like an insanely irrational decision, but I trusted Brennan, I loved the car, he was right, I did no research, and I’m so happy with the choice.
DUCKWORTH: You know, there is this research by Arie Kruglanski, who is this psychologist who has studied goals for his whole life — how we decide on a goal and which goals are more important. And he has this expression, like, there’s a stage in your striving for a goal, which is called “assessment.” And this is the stage that you’re like figuring things out, you’re weighing your options, you’re thinking about costs and benefits, you’re sort of searching, you’re maybe asking for advice. And then, he says, it’s in a different stage, and that’s “locomotion.” That is doing it. That is pursuing your goal. And what Kruglanski’s research and other people’s research would suggest is that one of the things that’s helpful is just to understand that you’re in one mindset or the other. And he sometimes calls people who prefer to be in the doing stage “locomotors.” These people who are like, “Enough of this deliberating. Let’s go.” And when I read that research, I was like, I think I’m a locomotor. I think I’m a person who probably — I can certainly think of examples where I have suffered from analysis paralysis, but I think I’m more of a locomotor. I think I vastly prefer to move forward from this assessment stage and get going.
MAUGHAN: Which I think makes so much sense.
DUCKWORTH: Something that surprised me about this research is that when they created this scale to see, you know, what people’s tendencies were and what they generally did when they made decisions in their lives, they found that it’s not that you’re either or, right? It’s not either you’re a locomotor and you go, go, go, or you’re someone who really likes to critically evaluate all the options. What they found is that it is possible to be both — or neither, by the way — and in fact, the optimal is that you can do both. That you can, when the time comes, slow down and assess your options, but absolutely, you also need to be somebody who can cross the Rubicon, so to speak, right? Make a decision and not look back.
MAUGHAN: I will say, one decision-making framework that we use at Qualtrics a lot is this idea of one-way or two-way doors. If it’s a two-way door, you can go through it and come back. And the idea of moving to the locomotor stage is huge because it’s like, look, if you can reverse this decision, then we shouldn’t waste so much time on deciding whether it’s perfect or not. If it’s a one-way door — so an example would be expanding to a new country or a new region of the world.
DUCKWORTH: Right, or deciding to go, like, remote-first and letting people live in different parts of the country. That’s a fairly one-way door.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, people have tried to make that a two-way door and you’ve seen it didn’t work.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s pretty much a one-way door.
MAUGHAN: Right. But it’s that idea. So I think reframing in our minds a little bit about, okay, wait, if this is a two-way door, I probably need to just move to the locomotion stage and just test it out. And I think that it frees up so much of our decision-making. And I think Angela and I would love to hear about your experience with analysis paralysis. Were you able to finally make a decision? And if so, how did you get unstuck? So record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to us at NSQ@Freakonomics dot com and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Angela, I want to read you one of my favorite things ever written about analysis paralysis from someone that you love.
DUCKWORTH: Who’s not Will Smith?
MAUGHAN: It is by, believe it or not, Sylvia Plath.
DUCKWORTH: I love Sylvia Plath!
MAUGHAN: See, I told you you’d like this. It’s from The Bell Jar. She said — and I’ll just read this. She said “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree. From the tip of every branch, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children. Another fig was a famous poet. Another fig was a brilliant professor. And yet another was an amazing editor. … Beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting at the base of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest. And as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle … and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh my God, that’s so beautiful.
MAUGHAN: I resonated so well with this, because I think, in life, so often, for myself, and I think maybe Alex and others go through this as well, we spend so much of our life sitting at the base of the fig tree, quote, “starving to death,” because we’re afraid to choose one path because by choosing one, we think of that as losing all the rest. And therefore end up doing nothing.
DUCKWORTH: So Mike, Alex started us down a very interesting path, asking, “are we arguing ourselves into an early grave?” I wonder what you would say to Alex now after we’ve covered the terrain that we did.
MAUGHAN: Alex, let me just say, I think maybe you’re asking this question because you are a little like me and sometimes fall into this path of analysis paralysis. So the advice I would give myself, and maybe you, after listening to all of what Angela has shared with us and reliving some of my past, bad experience not making decisions, is it’s always better to decide and take action than to wallow at the foot of the fig tree forever. So, move forward, let’s go!
This episode was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas and Julie Kanfer. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, Angela says she was introduced to the expression “paralysis by analysis” in Will Smith’s 2021 memoir, Will. In Angela’s recollection, a very senior Hollywood producer tells a young Will Smith: “There’s one way to fail in this industry, and that is paralysis by analysis.” She was more than likely thinking of the scene in which legendary record producer Quincy Jones negotiates a deal for the television show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. However, Angela doesn’t get the wording quite right. In the book, Smith recalls Jones shouting: “NO PARALYSIS THROUGH ANALYSIS!” nearly 50 times over a two-hour period, adding “It was the answer to every question, it was the response to every stutter, it was the solution to every legal problem.”
Later, Mike tells the story of buying a 2004 Toyota 4Runner with a cassette tape deck, and says that was the last year Toyota made one. This is incorrect. According to a Toyota spokesperson, the last 4Runner to offer a tape deck was the 2005 model, and the last Toyota of any model with a tape deck was the 2007 Avalon.
Finally, Mike describes a “Play Something” button on Netflix, which was designed to override viewers’ analysis paralysis by choosing something for them to watch. The feature debuted in April 2021, and was later rebranded as a “Surprise Me” button. But Netflix retired the button in January of this year because people weren’t using it. In the words of one Wall Street Journal article: “The streaming giant thought people wanted help in dealing with choice fatigue. Users weren’t quite that tired.”
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on astrology.
Rachel POSPISIL: Hi Angela and Mike. My name is Rachel and I used to be the kind of person that would roll my eyes whenever someone would say something like, “Oh, you’re such a Scorpio.” But this past year, I suffered an unexpected and pretty devastating loss, and during the hardest moments, found myself desperately longing for something bigger than myself to lean on. While I’m not fully Camp Astrology, I do now have a small collection of stones that help me ground myself in positive daily intentions. For example, I’ll carry an amethyst, a stone people say makes one calmer, on days when I need to manage my anxiety. So, adopting this practice made me appreciate those who I used to think were pretty silly for attaching meaning to meaningless things.
That was listener Rachel Pospisil. Thanks to Rachel and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear about your experiences with analysis paralysis. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: why do so many successful people feel unsatisfied?
DUCKWORTH: “Holy shmoly, this is the best life I could possibly be living. Why am I not a 10 out of 10 on happiness?”
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: Did anybody else’s voices crack like they’re going through puberty when they said “find”? That was amazing. “Be sure to find out!”
- Arie Kruglanski, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park.
- Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information, and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Sylvia Plath, 20th-century American novelist and poet.
- Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College.
- Herbert Simon, professor of computer science and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
- Will Smith, actor and film producer.
- “Netflix Sunsets ‘Surprise Me’ Shuffle-Play Button,” by Katie Deighton (The Wall Street Journal, 2023).
- “Choice Deprivation, Choice Overload, and Satisfaction with Choices Across Six Nations,” by Elena Reutskaja, Nathan N. Cheek, Barry Schwartz, et al. (Journal of International Marketing, 2021).
- Will, by Will Smith with Mark Manson (2021).
- “Can’t Decide What to Stream? Netflix’s New Feature Will Choose for You,” by Katie Deighton (The Wall Street Journal, 2021).
- The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz (2004).
- “The Tyranny of Choice,” by Barry Schwartz (Scientific American, 2004).
- “Maximizing Versus Satisficing: Happiness Is a Matter of Choice,” by Barry Schwartz, Andrew Ward, John Monterosso, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Katherine White, and Darrin R. Lehman (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002).
- “Self-Determination: The Tyranny of Freedom,” by Barry Schwartz (American Psychologist, 2000).
- “To ‘Do the Right Thing’ or to ‘Just Do It’: Locomotion and Assessment as Distinct Self-Regulatory Imperatives,” by Arie Kruglanski, Erik P. Thompson, E. Tory Higgins, M. Nadir Atash, Antonio Pierro, James Y. Shah, and Scott Spiegel (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000).
- The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (1963).
- “Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment,” by Herbert Simon (Psychological Review, 1956).
- Administrative Behavior, by Herbert Simon (1947).
- “Do You Mind if I Borrow Your Personality?” by No Stupid Questions (2022).
- “How Much Should We Be Able to Customize Our World?” by No Stupid Questions (2021).
- “Are You a Maximizer or a Satisficer?” by No Stupid Questions (2020).
- Cars.com Superbowl Ad (2009).