How to Make a Choice Without Choosing?

We have so many choices these days, and so little time to make a choice. From the choice of the right breakfast cereal to the choice of the right health insurance, we are trapped in an endless spiral of everyday choices.

Last night, I watched a TEDGlobal talk by Sheena Iyengar, a Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, about her research on “choice”. Yes, choice, or choices – depending on how you interpret modern dilemmas. It’s a really insightful talk about the gullible nature of choices:

The [second] assumption which informs the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice. So bring it on Walmart with 100,000 different products, Amazon with 27 million books and with — what is it? — 15 million date possibilities now. You will surely find the perfect match. Let’s test this assumption by heading over to Eastern Europe. Here, I interviewed people who were residents of formerly communist countries, who had all faced the challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society. One of the most interesting revelations came not from an answer to a question, but from a simple gesture of hospitality. When the participants arrived for their interview I offered them a set of drinks, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite — seven, to be exact.

During the very first session, which was run in Russia, one of the participants made a comment that really caught me off guard. “Oh, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all just soda. That’s just one choice.” (Murmuring) I was so struck by this comment that from then on I started to offer all the participants those seven sodas. And I asked them, “How many choices are these?” Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda. When I put out juice and water in addition to these seven sodas, now they perceived it as only three choices — juice, water and soda. Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans, not just to a particular flavor of soda, but to a particular brand. You know, research shows repeatedly that we can’t actually tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi.

…In reality, many choices are between things that are not that much different.

While this phenomenon may be cultural, some of it also has to do with the notion of individualism in many societies. “We are what we choose”, remarked Jeff Bezos in his speech to the Class of 2010 at Princeton University. But thinking too hard can often lead to poor choices.

What if most, if not all, of the choices could be simplified with something simple — a default option.

A default option, provisioned through careful analysis, can have an immense impact on us, specially in the social and economic landscape. What if the default option for the delivery of your utility bills or bank statements is email instead of paper mail? What if the default option for the enrollent in a retirement plan is inclusive instead of exclusive? What if a school cafeteria displayed the healthiest foods at the front? What if a $1 donation is a pre-selected option in a magazine renewal form? The simplest way to get more organ donors is to make the system “opt-out” instead of “opt-in”. People use the default choice most of the time, since they believe it is default for a reason.

Changing the defaults can be a powerful incentive to changing behavior. Having said that, choosing a good default is equally important. A wrong default for an array of choices can be counter-productive. Facebook’s privacy settings are a good example of poor defaults.

In the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, Prof. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler talk about the science of choices and defaults:

The human brain is amazing, but it evolved for specific purposes, such as avoiding predators and finding food. Those purposes do not include choosing good credit card plans, reducing harmful pollution, avoiding fatty foods, and planning for a decade or so from now. Fortunately, a few nudges can help a lot.

In present day and time, we often forget that when we have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.

We Lift On Three

At one of the company stand-ups I attended recently, the topic of discussion was ‘Good Communication’. As simple and ordinary it may sound, it did make me think about an interesting hypothesis.

Research tells us that only 7% of all communication is impacted by the content or the words used. The rest is all non-verbal — body language and tone. At the stand-up, we did a few basic exercises to highlight the basis of good communication, why we communicate (the way we do), with whom we communicate (internal and external parties), how we communicate (the modes and tools) and a few case studies of good and bad communications in the real-world.


From that discussion it made me wonder if most poor communication or mis-communication occurs when things go wrong, and most good communication occurs when things are going well. So essentially, communication is driven by the environment.

In chaotic situations, specially those which are life-threatening or time-sensitive, communication becomes harder by multitudes. When the Black Saturday bushfires (as many as 400 individual fires) were burning across the Australian state of Victoria in February 2009, millions of SMS messages warning of extreme fire danger conditions were sent by the mobile phone companies, on behalf of Victoria Police. However, a lot of people in the affected area didn’t receive the SMS messages, and a lot of people in the unaffected areas received the SMS messages. Some were spooked by the SMS messages and considered them an over-reaction. Others, mostly who were around the impact zone, felt the SMS messages were not relayed in a timely fashion.

A month later, amid global economic worries, the Australian Prime Minister announced a cash bonus for more than 8 million Australians as a way to stimulate the economy. Because this “desirable” action was communicated well, pretty much everyone who I talked to knew about the payment, who was eligible and even how & when the bonus would be paid.

Communication is effective when it’s intentful and well-guided, and communication is ineffective when it’s mostly unintentful or mis-guided. At some level, we are all likely to boost the success, achievements and pleasing actions, but put the failures and shortcomings under the carpet or atleast delay their communication. I guess the important thing, specially for businesses and government agencies, is to communicate consistently and become more open.

Eating To Live 1000 Years

The first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today … whether they realize it or not, barring accidents and suicide, most people now 40 years or younger can expect to live for centuries.

Sounds overly optimistic? A Cambridge University geneticist, and many other researchers, think it’s possible.

Immortality is one of humanity’s oldest dreams. We seem to think of life as being on a conveyor belt. You get on, travel to the end, then get off. The phenomenon we refer to as aging, has been researched extensively — both medically and psychologically.

A few months ago, I watched a documentary titled ‘How To Live To 101 Without Trying‘. It explores the towns where people live the longest:

In Okinawa (Japan), the residents actually age more slowly than almost anyone else on earth.

It’s what they don’t eat that may be at the heart of their exceptionally long lives. The Okinawan’s most significant cultural tradition is known as hara hachi bu, which translated means eat until you’re only 80% full.

Scientists call it Caloric Restriction (CR), but don’t entirely understand why it works. They think it sends a signal to the body that there is going to be a impending famine, sending it into a protective, self-preservation mode.

Eating less, does have huge merits. Some may argue, but I feel that living to 100 years, or 1000 years for that matter, may be possible through natural mechanisms such as CR. Such a diet can put the body into survival mode, causing cells to be extremely efficient, boosting the process by which cells remove damage. Research has shown that these unrecycled or damaged cellular components can lead to age-related decline.

If at all, we do end up living to 1000 years, what will be the implications? One significant transformation I expect to see is how the risk of living itself will increase with a longer lifespan. Mundane tasks like driving a vehicle or swimming in the ocean will suddenly become dangerous.

Is aging really a disease, for which we need to find a cure? Is eating less the perfect cure? Will extending the human lifespan result in social betterment? I guess it’s questions like these, and their answers, which will unravel in the near future.