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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Choices, Choices!

Copernicus. Remember him? What Copernicus did was change the metaphorical way we look at the world. By demonstrating that the earth and planets revolved around the sun rather than have the planets and sun revolve around the earth, he changed the way we pictorially think about the world, and opened the door to advances in physics that allowed space travel among other things. Metaphors can change the way we look at the world, and whether it is the metaphor of evolution, disease, mental health, etc., the questions we ask are dependent upon mental pictures of the world that we scarcely question. One of the most important metaphors that describes the root cause of our satisfaction/disatisfaction with the world is the cause of stress. Generally, we are stressed because of demands that we cannot fulfill or threats we cannot escape. The problem is, in a world far more bountiful and less threatening than in times past, we are beset by more anxieties than ever before. But what if it isn't demand or threat that makes us so stressed out and unhappy, but rather an abundance of options or choices? Then all we have to do to feel relaxed and happy is to manage how we choose things rather than what we choose. Very simply, like Copernicus' observation, regarding our mental health, and in particular stress, we've got is all backwards. Since I as a caustic reviewer eschew pontification on things, I only submit a procedure, recounted here: Itty-Bitty Self Help Book , the rest like the argument below is mere scribbling.

My argument in a nutshell

It is well known that muscular tension is a common element in the constellation of physiological events that comprise a ‘flight or fight’ response, a hard wired response that engages neural structures such as the amygdala that prime an individual to action. It is also true that the ‘flight or fight’ response is commonly expanded in the literature of stress to encompass states of muscular tension that may not originate in fear or anger, but remain attributable to point like stressors arising from the day to day demands of living. Thus, just like seeing a lion will charge one to tense up, seeing a deadline at work will do much the same, and activate the same neurological machinery. Although this logic is simple, it simply does not fit the facts from the social psychological to the physiological.

An extensive body of social psychological research has demonstrated, and has recently been argued at book length by the psychologist Barry Schwartz (‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’) that an abundance of choices rather than threats are responsible for the present day surge in anxiety related disorders. In other words, the tremendous increase in the number of options available to the modern consumer make it less and less possible to make reasoned choices, thus causing frustration, tension and often depression when opportunity losses abound from a plethora of options that are unchosen. But if irreconcilable choices are used as the operative metaphor rather than ‘stressors’, the implications to our understanding of stress are profound. Because the metaphor of choice does not imply threat, the logic of ‘flight or fight’ begins to ring hollow. For example, does the momentary tension that occurs while we decide between several varieties of toothpaste occur because we are priming ourselves to escape?

Of course, eliminating choices is not possible, since having multiple varieties of goods to choose from is not only reasonable but affectively desirable. However, temporarily avoiding or timing when we make choices is possible, and is a means we often use to avoid stress. For example, irreconcilable choices may be due to important decisions that must be made with limited information (whether or not to accept a job) or because the information provided comes from a different neurological source (raiding the refrigerator or keeping to a diet). To escape stressful choices, we thus avoid them, or move them to a preset place and time. Besides making choices that involve information or primary drives (e.g. hunger), choices are also embedded in drive states that more properly describe our sensitivity to novel or discrepant information that leads to a positive result. The ‘drive’ state, which is also called a ‘seeking response’ or Pavlovian incentive motivation, describes the attentive arousal, often pleasurably perceived, that attends our perception of novel positive events. Watching TV, answering email, playing a video game, engaging in a social conversation at work are all events that stimulate or arouse our attention because of the element of surprise or uncertainty they entail. More popularly called ‘distractions’, an attribute of our times is that often we don’t eliminate or forestall them, but use them as solution for stress rather than perceiving them as a cause. So when confronted with too many choices at work, rather than timing out and doing nothing, we introduce more choices (gossiping, web surfing, reading the paper), and end up being even more stressed.

Schwartz’s solution to the stresses that plague us was simple, namely reduce choice. A better solution is to manage choice, and to during preset hours during the day avoid all irreconcilable choices. In other words, by avoiding all distractions, with the alternative to making a choice being a simple time out (i.e. just sitting and doing nothing), the musculature will revert to a default or relaxed state. Thus, by deciding when to choose rather than what to choose, we can become relaxed at home and work, and be able to manage the daily stresses that beset us.

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