Door closer, are you?
1 The next time you're deciding between rival options, one which is primary and the other which is secondary, ask yourself this question: What would Xiang Yu do?
2 Xiang Yu was a Chinese imperial general in the third century BC who took his troops across the Zhang River on a raid into enemyterritory. To his troops' astonishment, he ordered their cooking pots crushed and their sailing ships burned.
3 He explained that he was imposing on them a necessity for attaining victory over their opponents. What he said was surelymotivating, but it wasn't really appreciated by many of his loyal soldiers as they watched their vessels go up in flames. But the genius of General Xiang Yu's conviction would be validated both on the battlefield and in modern social science research. General Xiang Yu was a rare exception to the norm, a veteran leader who was highly respected for his many conquests and who achieved the summit of success.
4 He is featured in Dan Ariely's enlightening new publication, Predictably Irrational, a fascinating investigation of seemingly irrational human behavior, such as the tendency for keeping multiple options open. Most people can't marshal the will for painful choices, not even students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Dr. Ariely teaches behavioral economics. In an experiment that investigated decision-making, hundreds of students couldn't bear to let their options vanish, even though it was clear they wouldprofit from doing so.
5 The experiment revolved around a game that eliminated the excuses we usually have for refusing to let go. In the real world, we can always say, "It's good to preserve our options." Want a good example? A teenager is exhausted from soccer, ballet, piano, and Chinese lessons, but her parents won't stop any one of them because they might come in handy some day!
6 In the experiment sessions, students played a computer game that provided cash behind three doors appearing on the screen. The rule was the more money you earned, the better player you were, given a total of 100 clicks. Every time the students opened a door by clicking on it, they would use up one click but wouldn't get any money. However, each subsequent click on that door would earn afluctuating sum of money, with one door always revealing more money than the others. The important part of the rule was each door switch, though having no cash value, would also use up one of the 100 clicks. Therefore, the winning strategy was to quickly check all the doors and keep clicking on the one with the seemingly highest rewards.
7 While playing the game, students noticed a modified visual element: Any door left un-clicked for a short while would shrink in size and vanish. Since they already understood the game, they should have ignored the vanishing doors. Nevertheless, they hurried to click on the lesser doors before they vanished, trying to keep them open. As a result, they wasted so many clicks rushing back to the vanishing doors that they lost money in the end. Why were the students so attached to the lesser doors? They would probably protestthat they were clinging to the doors to keep future options open, but, according to Dr. Ariely, that isn't the true factor.
8 Instead of the excuse to maintain future options open, underneath it all the students' desire was to avoid the immediate, thoughtemporary, pain of watching options close. "Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a big price to avoid the emotion of loss," Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easily measured in lost cash. In life, the corresponding costs are often less obvious such as wasted time or missed opportunities.
9 "Sometimes these doors are closing too slowly for us to see them vanishing," Dr. Ariely writes. "We may work more hours at our jobs without realizing that the childhood of our sons and daughters is slipping away."
10 So, what can be done to restore balance in our lives? One answer, Dr. Ariely says, is to implement more prohibitions on overbooking. We can work to reduce options on our own, delegating tasks to others and even giving away ideas for others to pursue.He points to marriage as an example, "In marriage, we create a situation where we promise ourselves not to keep options open. We close doors and announce to others we've closed doors."
11 Since conducting the door experiment, Dr. Ariely says he has made a conscious effort to lessen his load. He urges the rest of us to resign from committees, prune holiday card lists, rethink hobbies and remember the lessons of door closers like Xiang Yu.
12 In other words, Dr. Ariely is encouraging us to discard those things that seem to have outward merit in favor of those things that actually enrich our lives. We are naturally prejudiced to believe that more is better, but Dr. Ariely's research provides a dose of reality that strongly suggests otherwise.
13 What price do we pay for trying to have more and more in life? What pleasure and satisfaction can be derived from focusing our energy and attention in a more concentrated fashion? Surely, we will have our respective answers.
14 Consider these important questions: Will we have more by always increasing options or will we have more with fewer, carefully chosen options? What doors should we close in order to allow the right windows of opportunity and happiness to open?