“People have a great deal of anxiety about making decisions. Did I think this over long enough? Did I take enough data into consideration? And if you think it through, you find you never could take enough data into consideration. The data for any given decision is infinite… But worriers are people who think of all the variables beyond their control of what might happen” – Alan Watts
Is this an accurate representation of choice and decision making? For those of you who have seen the film Mr Nobody (2009) starring Jared Leto, you will have seen the possibilities that can arise from one simple choice. I’m unaware if Mr Nobody is a popular film or not, but for those who have not seen it, allow me to summarise in a way that keeps the film relevant to this topic:
(Warning: There are potentially spoilers here but I shall try and keep them to a minimum) In Mr Nobody, we are told about the life of Nemo (not the fish)…or more importantly, the lives of Nemo. After his parents get a divorce, Nemo has to choose between staying with his father and leaving with his mother. This is where we embark up the many different paths that Nemo could choose. Just to sum up quickly: If Nemo stays with his father, he falls in love with a girl called Elise and as a result, there are 4 potential futures he could face depending on his actions:
1) Elise doesn’t feel the same way as she has feelings for someone called Stefano and as a result Nemo crashes his motorbike at full speed, ending up in a coma. On the plus side, his parents get back together.
2) Elise doesn’t feel the same way as she has feelings for someone called Stefano and as a result Nemo falls in love with a girl called Jean. They get married and have children but despite being wealthy, Nemo feels miserable. Eventually making all his decisions by tossing a coin, he ends up in an unfortunate situation where he is mistaken for someone else and is killed by a hitman, before being buried in the woods.
3) Nemo marries Elise and they have kids but Elise is suffering from some sort of mental disorder and is constantly depressed or having mental breaks. She divorces Nemo to go pursue her one true love: Stefano.
4) Nemo marries Elise and on the way home from the ceremony, a tanker explodes and kills Elise while badly burning Nemo.
If he chooses to stay with his mother:
1) Meets a girl called Anna but after insulting her friends, he ends up alone.
2) Nemo doesn’t insult Anna’s friends but after she moves away, they lose touch. Bumping into each other years later, Anna gives Nemo her phone number but a raindrop lands on the paper just after she leaves, smudging all the numbers.
3) Nemo doesn’t insult Anna’s friends and they get married and have kids. Nemo stars on a science TV show but is killed after driving off the road into a lake on his way home.
So in as little detail as possible, this sums up the multiple paths that Nemo could take depending on that initial choice of whether he stays with his father or mother. I’ve missed out certain aspects of the film in order to avoid spoiling it.
Nemo can think about all the data regarding each of these decisions but following them one path at a time, he has no idea what the end result will be. We can see the outcome of a decision as good or bad but over time that can change.
Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that you have a time machine or the ability to time travel. Ignoring any sort of logic or physics in relation to time travel, let us just say that you can travel as far as one year or less into the future. You can travel back and forth, altering things until you get the outcome, one year from now that you want. You don’t have to worry about timelines or bumping into yourself. Just assume that that can’t happen. What would be the best outcome you could possibly desire? After that year is up, you are stuck to live with whatever follows, dealing with whatever consequences may follow.
Perhaps you’ve gone for the conventional lottery win or perhaps with your knowledge of future events you’ve become a psychic. Regardless of what you would change, you end up one year from now in what you view as your perfect situation. From that point on, you have no idea of what is going to happen. None whatsoever. You can set yourself up to the perfect spot but what’s to say that an asteroid doesn’t crash into your new house or you get struck by lightning walking home. You have no idea what the right choice is, so why do we spend so much time stressing about it? Of course this time travel situation is completely hypothetical. That doesn’t take away the meaning behind it.
Let me explain this idea in a different way, using a Taoist (ancient tradition of philosophy and religious beliefs) story:
‘There was an old farmer who had lived in the same place for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing of the sad news, his neighbours visited the old farmer: “Such bad luck” they said sympathetically. “Maybe” replied the farmer.
The next morning, the farmer’s horse returned, bringing with it 3 wild horses. “How wonderful” the farmer’s neighbours explained. “Maybe” replied the farmer.
The following day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the untamed horses and was thrown from the horse, breaking his leg. The neighbours visited the old farmer again to share their sympathies for his son’s misfortune: “How unfortunate” they told him. “Maybe” replied the farmer.
The next day, military officials arrived at the village to draft young men into the army. Upon seeing that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, the officials passed him by. Once again, the farmer’s neighbours visited him. “What great luck” they told him. “Maybe” replied the farmer.’
I think this story does a better job of illustrating my point. I’m finding it very difficult to stay away from certain topics while writing this: the multiverse theory comes to mind, as does the idea that we don’t actually make the decisions, but rather our brain at some sub-conscious level makes us believe that we have in fact made the choice. Not to mention the idea that every choice we are going to make has in fact already been made, we just haven’t experienced it yet as human beings are only capable of moving through time in a linear fashion. I could talk endlessly about these areas. Not from a scientific point of view mind you. Alas, these are areas I will have to delve into at another time.
So if we do follow the notion that making a decision by attempting to analyse that data related to each choice is actually impossible, should we stop making decisions the conventional way? Is it time to end the idea of using logic and instead leave our decision to the roll of a die or the toss of a coin? If we remove the ability for us to think over a decision, then we have to face whatever the outcome is. How often do we make decisions based on emotion or logic that end up being the completely wrong choice? Decisions made during certain emotional states tend to be illogical. For example, I’m sure we have all been in the situation where someone makes us angry and as a result we make a decision out of spite that only ends up affecting ourselves individually. Of course the opposite is also true as I have already mentioned: weighing up pros and cons can quite easily lead to a bad decision. Maybe you’re running low on money and your friends are going out. You decide it would be irresponsible to use the remainder of your money in such a way, so you stay in. The next day you hear stories about how great a night it was. You start regretting your choice, kicking yourself that you missed out on such an adventure (I say adventure but there are definitely much better examples of this than a night out, which tends to be rather similar to any other night out).
Perhaps we should follow in the footsteps of Jim Carrey’s character in Yes Man (2008). Whenever we are asked to do something, we can only give one answer: YES! This may be worth experimenting with at some stage (watch this space) but I have read a few interesting success stories in relation to this idea. The biggest issue most of us would face with it, would be that eventually we’d be asked to do something that we just couldn’t be bothered doing. We would say no to that one thing and before we know it, we’re right back where we started.
Another angle to take is to actually look at the choices we make. What better way to illustrate this point than with a quote from George Carlin:
“The things that matter in this country have been reduced in choice, there are two political parties, there are a handful of insurance companies, there are six or seven information centers…but if you want a bagel there are 23 flavours. Because you have the illusion of choice”
There is nothing I’d be happier writing about than our society and its messed up views. Western civilisation thrives by spewing out unnecessary garbage that people buy. What sort of society needs a new phone every 6 months just because Apple decide to add an ‘s’ to the model number and maybe give you an extra font option for your texts? I mean look at the choices we make as a society: Bush was president, Tony Blair was prime minister, we invaded Iraq (for no real reason other than fear and confusion), we vote to keep governments in power who did nothing but go back on promises, we allow poisonous drugs to be legal while safer ones are outlawed…the choices we make as a society tend to be even more negative than our individual choices. Why? Perhaps it is because as a society, we conform our behaviour to fit in with the social norms while allowing our emotions to be manipulated by the media, our families and our friends. We aren’t even aware of this happening. We all like to believe that the choices we make are our choices, made by us only, without being influenced by anyone or anything…I’m going off topic here but allow me to get back to the point: choice is overrated.
While choice may be overrated, I’m not saying we should be limited or restricted in terms of the choices we can make. What I mean is that we should put less thought and less effort into our choices and instead go with a random decision and see where it takes us. I think it is safe to conclude that a lot of us will not experience everything life has to offer unless we are thrown into the deep end and out of our comfort zones. We can’t spend our lives weighing up the pros and cons for every decision we make. Likewise, if we let our emotions be the decision maker, the outcome could be just as negative…or it could be positive. It is however, likely to always have the same trajectory. Humans enjoy patterns and routine and that is likely to be true at a sub-conscious level as well. So why not rid ourselves of the burden of choice entirely? The next time you have to make a choice, why not try tossing a coin, or if there are more options: roll some dice? No matter what the outcome, don’t look back in hindsight and wonder what could have been if you’d only made the decision yourself. Instead, see it all as an experiment. You’re not always going to get positive results but if you give up after the first attempt, who knows what you might miss out on discovering.
“Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. If you want a different result, make a different choice” – Unknown