Indecisive? There’s An App For That

As most readers know (or have no doubt deduced by now), I have a professional interest in how we make decisions. So if the Globe & Mail is going to publish an article with the headline “Choices got you down? Leave it to an app (and strangers) to decide for you,” I’m probably going to have an opinion.

The premise is an interesting one. We have so many decisions to make, and face so many possible choices, that we are paralyzed about what to choose. The argument that excessive amounts of choice make us cranky is not a new one; Alvin Toffler introduced the term ‘overchoice’ in his surprisingly-still-relevant-if-currently-underappreciated 1970s book ‘Future Shock’ to describe the context. Rather than massive variety and a plethora of options being a source of happiness and empowerment, it actually produces stress, anxiety and uncertainty.

The basis of this isn’t really hard to understand, and goes hand in hand with the concept of ‘buyer’s remorse’. We are afraid to choose, and in choosing make the wrong choice. We are afraid that once we have chosen, we’ll regret the choice that we have made. And we are afraid that the minute we make a choice and slap-down our well-used credit card, something new and exciting and more interesting will come along that makes our current choice inadequate and disappointing. Really, when you get down to it, it’s enough to make you not want to get out of bed in the morning. Except that’s a choice, too.

In the face of all this uncertainty, apparently there are now apps you can download to help with your decision making. Once you’ve decided which one to check out (and there are several, so you might just want to crowd-source this decision as well) you can carry the hive-mind along with you and submit your life-altering decisions to the careful and considered deliberations of absolute strangers on the internet.

Speaking personally, I am highly questioning of the wisdom of crowds, but that’s a post for a different day. Suffice it to say that the only way that this works is if your preferences are so indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd that you are bound to like pretty much what everyone else likes. And you might well decide you are, if you already consider yourself a slave to fashion that is desperate to keep up with the Jones’. In that case, don your Ugg boots, slip on those Ray Bans, grab your Canadian Goose jacket while it’s still almost cool enough to justify it, and carry on shopping. Otherwise, you might want to question that decision a little more closely.

According to the article, however, we aren’t that unique. Specifically, a social psychologist named Ron Friedman suggests that our tastes are most typically like those in our social circle, and our friends are possibly better positioned than we are to make decisions for us. It’s an interesting theory, but it depends upon the motivation behind the recommendation. If they are wanting to appease us, they might just go along with the answer that they think we want to hear. If they are truly trying to help, they will also try to objectively analyze the decision, and may bring more perspective to the choice than we are ourselves. Which approach is taken might provide some interesting insights as to who your friends really are.

It’s not that we can’t be objective, mind you, but it’s often not a discipline we embrace readily. As Sheena Iyengar points out in the article, decision making is work and requires a cognitive load. Given the number of decisions we face in a day, the issue becomes one of choosing which choices are the most important for us to make and which are, in the grand scheme of things, not worth fussing over.

When you can prioritize your decisions, you can worry about whether an app is an appropriate way to outsource your decisions. Although you could also choose to save the cost of the app and just flip a coin.

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