Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Decisions, decisions

From last week, a post by Patrick Appel for Andrew Sullivan on a Scientific American article, Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain. In a nutshell, research shows that making choices fatigues the brain, causing subsequent decisions to suffer. Choice is hard, and providing people with more of it is not necessarily a plus.

I thought of writing a lengthy post in which I talk about how our system of representative democracy coupled with free-market capitalism elevates choice above all other attributes, being the only one that the two components share. As China is demonstrating, capitalism and democracy are not inevitably linked, despite what our pundits say.

It occurred to me, however, that I've written about this before. 14 months ago I wrote a post which lays out my concerns about how poorly our system serves the people, in particular because the ideals of the free market have taken precedence over the functions of our government. As a result, we've elevated the notion of choice, instrumental to the market system, to the overwhelmingly predominant value we can have. So we're offered choice in our medical plans; if we guess wrong, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

There may be many cases in which this is acceptable, but the research also indicates that this creates stress, stress that I would imagine is even greater for choices made in situations of greater uncertainty. Choice sounds great as long as the majority is making good (or at least acceptable) decisions - however, when they all, for example, miscall the real estate market, we can end up with disaster for the nation as a whole. Sometimes it is necessary to constrain individual choice to make the system work.

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