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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Tyranny of Swamps

IN 442BC, the Greek philosopher Apollodorus of Schwartz (of the Kosher Greek states) was vacationing with his family in the marshland near Athens. He noticed that his family quickly expired from some strange disease. Astutely, he conjectured that the marsh (or probably the consumption of some three day old tomatoes) was somehow responsible. Later observations of vacationers and mortality rates increasingly confirmed the fact that being around a marsh for a picnic, or worse, living there was a bad thing. Thus the concept of 'the tyranny of swamps' was born. Of course, what caused swamp fever wasn't too important, as one could chalk it up to swamp gas, stinky water, or evil spirits. Whatever the cause, swamps were bad.

Ancient Greek Psychologist

Nonetheless, the fact that swamps are bad could not dissuade folks from living or vacationing near them, and more than two thousand years had to pass before someone actually took the time to scientifically explain why swamps were associated with disease. Actually, the swamp was not at fault, but rather an aspect of swamps, namely a disease carrying mosquito. Thus instead of draining or otherwise avoiding the swamp, you simply get rid of the mosquito. So you can have your swamp vacation and your health too!

Fast forward to the present time, and we are confronted with tyranny of a different sort, namely that of choice. In his recent book 'The Tyranny of Choice' the psychologist Barry Schwartz deftly summarized a score of studies that arrived at the same conclusion: namely having lots and lots of choices is bad for you. Specifically, the more choices you have, the more you stand to lose if you choose the wrong item, whether it be condiments, cars, or condoms. Thus you get anxious, indecisive, and more likely than not end up running away from the whole situation.

A problem with this analysis is that like Schwartz's ancient kin Appllodorus, noting that people get sick because the context of their behavior doesn't explain that behavior. Indeed, all that Schwartz and his colleagues could offer was that making lots of choices taxes our nervous system like an overloaded circuit box, thus substituting metaphor for explanation. But that didn't matter, since like a noxious swamp, all you had to do to escape all that anxiety was to simply avoid making too many choices. So explanation can wait, and no problem if a thousand years would need to pass. Actually, to find an explanation you need to go back 50 years or so, or a thousand and fifty if you waited that long.

Dollard and Miller to the rescue!

In 1955, John Dollard and Neal Miller studied laboratory animals under similar conditions of choice, and came to the conclusion that the critters will tense up when confronting future choices that could result in pain, but would only be anxious if they could possibly avoid those choices. In other words, tension and anxiety occurred to warn you of future pain, and were reinforced because they provided the motivation or 'drive' for you to avoid the situation. Anxiety did not occur because our brain is proverbially overheating due to all those demanding choices, but because it anxiety does something, namely motivates you to avoid future pain.

Now the anticipation of choice is not a painful thing, it's only when you have to make a choice. The problem is in these days, choice is a infinitely portable thing, and we are faced with having to make choices every minute. Unlike the 1950's, when the times we could make choices were more limited, nowadays, we are offered the choice of chatting on the phone/watching tv/internet shopping etc. 24/7. Thus the world becomes infinitely distractive and anxiety inducing when every second we stand to lose something. So its not necessarily the choices, but the timing wherein we make choices. So the cure is remedying an aspect of the problem, namely the portability of choosing. Just radically postpone all your distractions to a set time and place, and voila, you are liberated from the tyranny of choice. So you can indeed have your cake (or dessert choices) and eat it to, just remember that its only after dinner.

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