Rich man's problem: Having so many choices makes us very indecisive, indeed

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 20, 2013 

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300 dpi 2 col x 5.25 in / 96x133 mm / 327x454 pixels David Steinlicht color illustration of a confused consumer surrounded by cell phones, computers, batteries and a portable CD player. Saint Paul Pioneer Press 2002 <p> KEYWORDS: gadget crazy consumer electronics electronic technology shopping shopper choice confusion illustration artilugio chisme electronica consumidor loco tecnologia confuso ilustracion grabado contributed sp steinlicht 2002

DAVID STEINLICHT — David Steinlicht

With the release of the NCAA tournament brackets last week, millions of Americans were tasked with making hundreds of decisions, decisions researchers say may be taking a mental toll on our minds.

Research has shown that the more decisions we make, the less skilled we become at making good decisions. See: the massive ratings for "The Bachelor" or "Swamp People."

Shocking, I know.

The reasons for this are myriad, and, at the risk of dummying-down something as unbelievably complicated as our higher cognitive function, it all comes down to this: We have a rich man's problem.

We simply have too many options these days, and the more options we have, the less likely we become to make sound decisions. At least in any kind of a timely fashion.

Just ask my mother.

Every time my mother intends to make a purchase of any great significance, be it for a new television or digital camera, she engages in exhaustive research, scouring Consumer Reports and customer reviews like an ambitious young lawyer clerking for a Supreme Court justice, poring over volumes of legal precedent, hoping to unearth the one perfect opinion that will decide a case.

And only after months of research and toiling will my mother eventually pull the trigger and buy the darn thing, all the while doubting herself and worrying she made the wrong decision.

As if the fate of Western civilization rests on whether she bought the right MP3 player.

But her indecisiveness might not totally be of her own doing, according to researchers.

In a 2011 Newsweek article, Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, was quoted as saying technology, for all its convenience, may to blame for our increasing inability to make good decisions.

According to research conducted by Dimoka and her colleagues, the steady flow of information we receive from Twitter, Facebook and the Internet itself often overloads the part of our brains tasked with sound decision-making.

Instead of using the vast amounts of information literally at our fingertips to make well-informed decisions, we can easily become inundated and overwhelmed by the volumes of facts, opinions and other kinds of data at our disposal, and that prompts us to make sloppy mistakes and downright bad choices.

And the mental toll that decision-making can take on us isn't simply the stuff of neuroscientists and psychologists.

President Barack Obama may succumb to the temptation of filling out his own tournament bracket (or his Barack-et ... sorry) but he has otherwise done his best to eliminate trivial decision-making from his life, according to reporters.

In an article for "Vanity Fair," best-selling author Michael Lewis wrote that Obama eliminated the daily decision of what to wear from his life by having only navy and gray suits in his wardrobe.

And we would all do well to do the same, on some level, in our own lives.

We, myself included, need to be reminded that there's nothing wrong with occasionally hiding our cell phones from ourselves, closing the laptop for an hour or two and taking time to think critically and analytically about the decisions we make in our lives -- yes, even whether Bucknell can upset Butler.

We need clearer thinking now more than ever, and it seems in short supply during a time we've dubbed "The Information Age" but might more appropriately be called "The Inundation Age."

This week's playlist features songs about decisions, choices and dilemmas, none of which were likely resolved while reading tweets between rounds of Angry Birds.

Turns out, most of us have pretty good instincts. Except those of you watching "Swamp People."

  • The Clash, "Should I Stay or Should I Go" -- One of rock'n'roll's most classic dilemmas.

  • Black Flag, "Can't Decide" -- Henry Rollins knows how you're feeling when considering bags of organic vs. non-organic carrots.

  • Ramones, "Daytime Dilemma" -- One of this classic band's more underrated songs.

  • * Ryan Adams and The Cardinals, "Breakdown Into the Resolve" -- Something we all need to do more often.

  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, "No Choice in the Matter" -- A refreshing thought. A great song.

  • Elliott Smith, "Big Decision" -- Aren't they all these days?

  • * The Mountain Goats, "Oceanographer's Choice" -- I'm guessing it's whether to document that giant squid or not. I say no. The world needs a little more mystery.

  • Animal Collective, "What Would I Want? Sky" -- Out of all the possible answers to the question, "What would I want?" Sky didn't seem a likely choice.

  • Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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