Chunky Video Stores!
21 April 2010
Generalisations have a strange power. There's something interesting at work.
Choice Causes Stress
Give someone a choice between lots of different types of bread. He's less likely to buy some. Give him fewer choices of bread. He's more likely to buy. It's quite well established that if you give people a lot of options they don't usually like it. Barry Schwartz writes in "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less" that when companies offered only one, standard 401k fund choice then people were more likely to sign up than if the company offered several choices. He writes in Scientific American:
"Along with several colleagues, I have recently conducted research that offers insight into why many people end up unhappy rather than pleased when their options expand. We began by making a distinction between "maximizers" (those who always aim to make the best possible choice) and "satisficers" (those who aim for "good enough," whether or not better selections might be out there). We borrowed the term "satisficers" from the late Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University." (Scientific American, April 2004, The Tyranny of Choice).
Some people hate video stores. I gets pangs of angst about my movie choices. It's embarassing to admit! Fortunately Schwartz has some advice for me:
- avoid putting much effort into unimportant decisions;
- decide the general principles of what you want and stick to it;
- don't worry about what you might be missing out on;
- don't expect too much, accept things that are "good enough".
So that becomes ...
- select a genre, actors and era and stick to it;
- don't worry about the other movies I could rent, just pick one and stick with it;
- don't spend much time worrying about whether or not it's a "good" movie;
Others have found that making snap decisions based on intuition is just as effective - if not more so - than pondering your options extensively. If I follow Schwartz's advice I end up doing more of that. Less thinking, more just going with my intuition. Maybe that's the point?
But there's more to all this than just me behaving like Woody Allen in the video store.
A temptation for some is to break the world up into generalisations; things that can be classified, counted and analysed. Something you can fit in a brain. I'm doing it right now. George A. Miller started off a whole line of research into the idea. The notion is that our minds can only juggle so much information in our short term memory. Hence the video store stress? The classic example is a series of digits. How many can you remember before you start to get lost? Or a series of random words? Miller says this:
In order to speak more precisely, therefore, we must recognize the importance of grouping or organizing the input sequence into units or chunks. Since the memory span is a fixed number of chunks, we can increase the number of bits of information that it contains simply by building larger and larger chunks, each chunk containing more information than before. (The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, originally published in The Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, pp. 81-97)
Raph Koster puts it this way:
"Chunking is something we do all the time [...] If I asked you to describe how you got to work in the morning in some detail, you'd list off getting up, stumbling to the bathroom, taking a shower, getting dressed, eatijng breakfast, leaving the house, and driving to your place of exmployment. That seems like a good list, until I ask you to walk through exactly how you perform just one of these steps. Consider the step of the getting dressed. You'd probably have trouble remembering all the stages. Which do you grab first, tops or bottoms? Do you keep your socks in the top or second drawer? Which leg do you put in your pants first? Which hand tocuhes the button of your shirt first?" (A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster, p.20)
The generalisation is a way of coping with the lack of mental processing power. The strange thing is, these generalisations are built on experiences. Under each generalisation there are a series of experiences giving the generalisation an emotional context. The generalisation is acting as a proxy for a host of past experience.
Perhaps you hate walnut furnishing. All walnut furnishing. Another person likes walnut furnishing. You meet. You argue. It looks like the topic is "walnut furnishing", but the real content is your experiences around walnut furnishing.
Perhaps you had a horrible doctor you visisted a few times who had lots of walnut furnishing. And had to spend time with a severe Aunt who made you clean it.
Perhaps the pro-walnut furnishing person had lovely summer holidays with his grandparents. Who - you guessed it - had walnut furnishing.
When one criticises "walnut furnishing" the other hears it as a criticism of her grandparents. When one defends "walnut furnishing", the other hears it as a defense of a severe Aunt and a horrible doctor.
You won't change each other's experiences of walnut furnishing; they're hard-wired, emotionally strong memories. So the conversation has a strange, intellectually empty, emotionally rich quality.
It's often a good idea to talk about experiences rather than speak in generalisations in these situations. Generally speaking, insist on actual anecdotes :-)!
Otherwise you end up trading the classic meaningless diplomat's line, trying to sound reasonable:
"I don't know the circumstances around this particular case, but in general ..."
Do you seek:
Does all this comes from a desire "Chunking"? Keeping things ordered, written down, systemised, and so on helps people cope with limited working memory? It's not fun trying to live life like that, though, is it? The world is just too complex. If you find yourself doing that - I do - perhaps you need to start living anecdotally; from experience to experience, letting the unconscious do more of the work? Spending less time with delusional generalisations and more time with actuality. The technique? This might be worth reading.
Hmm. What the hell does all this mean? No idea!