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Spoilt with Choice

February 25, 2018
- Sanjana Srivastava, Sanat Bhargava, Manan Jain, Utkarsh Mujumdar, Agrim Patodia

While it might be impudent of us to declare that the control humans seem to hold over the ‘choices’ they face is more of a handicap than a power, our claim might not be completely unfounded. Our life is littered with choices, and while we don’t seem to mind some of them, a majority of these choices find a way to annoy us by creeping into our daily decision-making, just when they’re uncalled for.

Surely enough, all the choices you’re going to have to face won’t always be plagued by an inherent difficulty in judging the merits of the alternatives offered. For instance, it probably wouldn’t be a burden to choose between two not-so-equal alternatives, like if boiled eggs were pitted against a slice of pizza, or if you had to choose between an hour of reading your favourite book, or an hour of talking to one of your relatives about what you (don’t) have planned for your future. These choices don’t seem to demand a lot of attention from you, probably because they bring with them a more favourable and a more obvious selection.

However, consider these three cases.

  • It’s 8:00 a.m. You’ve pulled an all-nighter studying for the big quiz you have in a couple of days trying to finish that TV series everyone has been talking about so that you can fit in. Now that you’re done with the series finale, you can finally tend to your hunger, which you had been shrugging off as the plot thickened. Additionally, you’re too sleep-deprived to walk too far. Consequently, the only option you have left is to drag yourself to the mess and eat whatever is offered to you, or just go to bed hungry. What do you do?

  • That classmate you have been crushing on for the longest of times has finally agreed to go out with you. You know you have one shot at this. You also know that they like Chinese food, but if you picked an Italian place, you wouldn’t have to risk embarrassing yourself by trying to use chopsticks. What do you do?

  • You have to vote for one of the two students contesting for the college elections. One of them cut in front of you a month ago while you were obediently waiting in line for taking sweets in the mess. The other did not post a message on your timeline on your birthday. What do you do?

While all three of the aforementioned hypotheticals represent a choice, they’re all not the same. The first is a classic case of what is referred to as a Hobson’s Choice. In this situation, you are in a ‘take it or leave it’ situation, where you either have to settle for the only alternative available, which, for all you know, is not worth taking a shot at; or just end up empty-handed. The latter two situations, on the other hand, are each an example of a Morton’s Fork. Often used interchangeably with the concept of a dilemma, a Morton’s Fork is a case where you have two or more equally appealing (or unappealing) choices to pick from, which is where it gets tricky. All of these situations highlight how perceived luxury of having choices becomes too rich for our blood. Weighing the pros and cons and delving into quick mental analyses for these choices in terms of the implications they may have is too tedious an exercise to consider, mostly because the circumstances are too trivial to demand your attention.

But what if we raise the stakes here, just enough to make you worry? What if you were to choose between two college majors, or you were at the point in your life where you had to decide a career?

Our brain tends to attach gravity to every choice it faces by ruminating on the possible repercussions of a bad choice. It plays out all the probable outcomes, considering them, and agonizing you enough to keep you up at night, maybe even frustrating you to a point where you resign yourself to a belief that you’d be better off constricted in an alternate dimension, devoid of choice. To add to our misery, our ever-so-sadistic brain appends some kind of responsibility with every choice it faces. It bestows upon us an authority to take a call, an authority that amplifies mutually with the perceived importance of a decision.

What is this authority, really?

Given that one doesn’t control the consequences in the aftermath of a decision, it would be safe to assume that the power we speak of is merely apparent, imminent to be rendered worthless in the grander scheme of things. You could never know what the other paths would have been like, because you didn’t get a chance to experience them. One of the physical models of the universe (or the multiverse, to be precise) makes an attempt at explaining this notion through the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics. It proposes that every possible alternate timeline for the universe is real and they all happen in an ever-larger, ever-branching way. To put it in simpler words, it means that at whichever point we have to make a choice among the possible options, our life splits into multiple universes, entailing the path we choose. So theoretically, all the possible stories do take place, but we happen to experience only one of them. Life is the best simulation video game there is, where your choices form your story. No matter what you choose, the other options quickly evanesce as you don’t know what they had to offer. Hence, there is no right or wrong in choice, and that explains the power we talked about earlier. The fact that you have a choice, therein lies this apparent power.

This romanticised delineation, however, pokes fun at the human emotion of regret. If no one knows where the other path would have taken oneself, then why does one lament his decision? Sure, the other path might have suited someone else, but that does not really mean that it would have turned out to be the same way for you. Maybe the outcome isn’t what we thought it would be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we made the inapt decision. Maybe the outcome in the other situation might have been worse. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, since now, it’s something that you just can’t change. Every choice, whether tiny or huge, is immensely important at the moment you face it, and it loses all of its importance the second you make it.

The feigned presence of meaning to our decisions is perplexing enough to lead us to a futile search for a scapegoat, which finds its distressing comfort in regret. The powerlessness over the circumstances we might face unsettles us. And this, unfortunately, is enough to send us into a cycle of self-reproach and ‘what-ifs’.