Search This Blog

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Tyranny of Choice and the One Track Mind

Epidemiology is to biology what social epidemiology (or social psychology) is to neuroscience. But each discipline requires the other to provide true explanations for behavior. Thus, to know how a disease spreads and impacts a population, it’s critically important to inform that knowledge with a rudimentary or metaphorical understanding of how diseases work. For example, in the 19th century, the epidemiology of malaria was well known, but because the spread of the disease was attributed to ‘bad air’ rather than mosquito, epidemiological knowledge could only suggest a partial remedy, if at all. For social psychology however this connection is missing, as the behavior of people in social settings is generally not informed by neuroscience, but rather by the folk psychology of every day motives or desire. This disconnect means that social observations can result in prescriptions that are only partially effective because they miss the real reasons for behavior.

How social epidemiology goes astray is illustrated by Barry Schwartz’s recent and quite important book ‘The Tyranny of Choice’. Schwartz noted from an abundance of sociological evidence that the increase in choices marked by the post industrial world is directly correlated with a rise in unhappiness. An abundance of choices means that we are more likely to suffer an opportunity loss for alternatives foregone, and that our adaptation to choices we make lead to the uncomfortable perception that the grass is always greener next door. So what is Schwartz’s prescription? It is to simply limit choice. The problem with this remedy is that neurologically, people (and indeed most living things) are neurologically wired to be aroused or find pleasure in the apprehension of choice, or in other words, looking forward to things. The apprehension of future choices, or ‘wanting’, is core to modern neuroscientific explanations of motivation, thus rendering Schwartz’s contrarian argument as neurologically unrealistic. Rather, it is in the execution and not in the apprehension of choice that unhappiness looms, and it may be argued that it is not choices per se that make us miserable, but the present ability to make choices at any time. For example, in 1955 we could check our mail, our stocks, see our favorite TV show, or even chat on the phone only at specified times and places. Nowadays, we can do all of these things at any place and any time. The result is a world that not only multiplies hopes (or choices), but multiplies distractions. In the past, distractions were limited, now they are everywhere, and the modern problem becomes not what to choose, but when to choose. So not limiting but delaying choice is perhaps a better remedy for the tyranny of choice. But this simple and obvious solution eludes Schwartz because he fails to recognize that the apprehension of choices is not just a rational but an affective thing, and that the prospect of infinite choice (or freedom) is as innate and important to us as taking a breathe.

(For more on the neurology of choice, I recommend the website of the neuroscientist Kent Berridge, who has included and admirable set of articles on the neuroscience of incentive motivation, or how we make choices.)


Zeb said...

I ADORE you bad psychology dictionary! i was googling for info on popperian epistemology and found your site! pure magic :-)

A.J. Stanson said...

You really must update, I have nothing to do when I'm supposed to be working, these days.

Joseph W. Freynik said...

Your analogy is flawed.

Disease is not the same as bad choices.

And the mistake of malaria is true of all scientific theories. When caught in the throes of one mental model it is hard to see the evidence or mosquito that is right under your nose that opposes it. Science (especially empirical science)is by definition near-sighted.

The mechanical model of neuroscience is insufficient to encompass the realm of human choice. We are not the thought, the choice, the decision. We are the thinker of the thought, etc. The essential component that will always be missing from your model is freedom.

Choice is not the mathematical formula you believe. The fine gradation of the behaviorist model that you, yourself suggest precludes prediction. The butterfly effect of the mind. However, I would contest that the true situation is much more complex than even that. Take for example creativity, art. Michaelangelo saw men in the blocks of marble. That didn't come from some binary, plug and play, explanation of the mind. Stephen King claims that he unearths his novels, they are not his choices, they come from somewhere else. Behaviorism has no room for such thoughts. Neuroscience is clumsy and inadequate to describe the human creative mind.

Social psychology must be based on the human as a free choosing individual always separate from his biology and genetics and childhood traumas and mental models. The bird's eye view and the intimate friend's view. Seeing science from the inside is too near-sighted. You must rise above the problem. Forget Popper. He was just a man. Look at science from the outside. Free yourself from your empirical bonds and walk upright.