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Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction

Keeping Doors Open

I wrote recently of the cognitive limit humans encounter when they try to choose between too many options.  Today, I want to look at more of the cognitive “down sides” of choice.  To begin with, let’s remember that the perception of choice is very important to human happiness.  (Actually, it’s very important to lots of mammals, but that’s another article.)  Feelings of self-actualization are very closely linked to the belief that we’re in charge of our own course in life.

However, research strongly demonstrates that the benefit of choice is not a straight line graph.  Rather, it’s akin to a bell curve.

Having no choice is bad for us.  But the benefit of choice is not limitless.  At some point, the negative consequences begin to overwhelm us, and we end up more or less right back where we started.

It’s not just about an overwhelming number of choices, either.  Sometimes, just having a choice at all can be a bad thing.  Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, conducted an experiment with subjects playing a simple computer game.  Each player saw three doors of different colors.  Clicking on a door opened it and gave the player the chance to click again and win or lose a random amount of money.  Alternatively, she could click on another door and close the first one.

The optimal strategy is pretty obvious.  Never close a door.  The amounts behind the doors are random, and the best way to give yourself the most return is to get fifty clicks behind open doors.  A significant number of players figured this out early on.

However, another group’s game was tweaked in an important way.  Each click on or inside one door reduced the size of the other two doors.  Clicking on a shrunken door would increase it in size at the same proportion that it shrank.  So the players faced a dilemma — to play the best strategy, they must let their choices disappear.

You can probably predict what happened.  The players with the shrinking doors made significantly less money than those in the control group.  They wasted a shockingly large percentage of their clicks on keeping doors from shrinking, even though the amounts were random, and there was no advantage to keeping the choices available.

It gets worse.  Researchers explained to a third group — before playing — that the average payout behind each door was the same.  And it hardly mattered. Players still wasted clicks to keep doors available, and they still made significantly less money than the control group.  Both literally and metaphorically, it was more important to keep doors open than to make more money!

This experiment illustrates a powerful and often irrational drive in humans.  We often “keep doors open” to our own detriment.  We behave as if in general, the existence of options is better than the quality of the options themselves.  Particularly in the capitalist west, this instinct is reinforced, sometimes to absurd extremes.  On nearly every interstate exit, we have the choice between McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardees, and two or three other regional “burger and fries” restaurants.  We now understand that preferences between such similar choices are often based more on priming than objective differences, but it doesn’t matter.  We typically have a minor hissy fit if we are forced to eat a Whopper instead of a Big Mac.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven for miles and miles waiting for an exit with lots of choices, even though I’ve passed plenty of exits with one restaurant that I’d be perfectly happy with.

The same effect also takes its toll on our dating lives, especially in metropolitan areas.   Relationship blogger Susan Walsh often writes about women who keep their options open for so long that they devalue themselves right out of the dating market.  Women are at the height of their “mating value” while they’re in their 20s.  After the mid-30s, their value goes down significantly, since men in their 40s are still capable of attracting mates in their mid to late 20s or early 30s.  So the optimal strategy for most women should be to take the best option available while her value is the highest.  But commitment-phobia is rampant, and gets worse when there are larger dating pools.   For women who aren’t interested in raising a family, I suppose it’s not as big a deal, but “revolving door dating” takes its toll.

It could be argued that men are refusing to commit en masse, but I’d respond that it’s only the “alpha players” who insist on accumulating bedpost notches.  There are plenty of available commitments — just not from high-end alpha males.  (And let’s be honest — for a guy who can have any woman he wants, most women are mopeds — fun to ride, but you don’t want your friends to see you on them.)

We also see this effect in what I call the “Hedge Second.”  Many people — men and women — divert energy from a relationship and maintain a “close friend” on the side.  We can certainly see this behavior as insurance against getting dumped, but we can also explain it as an aversion to closing too many doors at once.

So the moral of the story?  Be careful of keeping doors open at the expense of living in the nice house behind door number one.  Many times, picking any option early enough is better than picking the best option much later.  (Stocks and 401ks are great examples of this.  Pick any one at age 20, and it’ll be worth a lot at age 60.  Wait until 30 to pick, and even the best securities will not perform as well.  Investments are long term strategies.)  It’s tricky territory, to be sure, but if we understand the strong appeal of having options, we can examine our decision making more skeptically, which can ironically give us the rationalization for making a choice and running with it.



7 thoughts on “Keeping Doors Open

  1. And let’s be honest — for a guy who can have any woman he wants, most women are mopeds — fun to ride, but you don’t want your friends to see you on them.

    Haha! That is a great metaphor!

    This post conveys important information about strategy. It’s not unusual for the most effective strategies to be counterintuitive – we read the study, or view the proof, and we still think, “How can that be?” We don’t trust it.

    One of the worst mistakes is throwing something great away because the odds are against it. Yes, it’s really, really hard to have a relationship with someone from another country. But I have two friends who relocated to different countries for love. It’s hard to keep a relationship going when one of you is off to grad school, or a new job in another location. But the older I get the more I think that relationships are really what matter. Perhaps when we find something that works really well, we should fight to hang on to it, rather than assume it can’t work, or that something even better will be along shortly.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | July 12, 2010, 5:06 pm
  2. I think the irony is that the game community is huge about NOT limiting choices. The game is to keep everyone stringing along for as long as possible and claim a role as a “seat” on the cock carousel. Then to demonize every woman that took a ride on it as not being worthy of an actual relationship.

    Susan is quite right about the women that wait forever. I can only assume that being a cougar is more fun with a Sex and the City budget than with a regular income.

    The older I get the more my boring life seems brilliantly successful. Who knew. And I fought it so long too.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | July 12, 2010, 6:28 pm
  3. Yay! You found the study. That concept really hit home with me, because it’s so true in so many areas of our lives, but it does show up heavily in dating and mating.

    At a certain point, committing to a person means giving up all other options. Frankly, I believe you’re not really in a relationship until you’ve done that. For real.

    Posted by Aldonza | July 13, 2010, 5:39 pm
  4. Hehe… Yep. Wasn’t actually too hard to find, since I was already interested in Ariely’s work. I’m about to start his book now that I’ve put two and two together.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 13, 2010, 6:27 pm
  5. You’ve probably already seen this, but just in case – this bit about Ariely and online dating showed up in my inbox recently:

    Posted by Susan Walsh | July 13, 2010, 7:20 pm
  6. Yeah, I saw that, Susan. The comments are puzzling to me. Both Michael and Dave missed the point completely. Neither Ariely nor you nor I are saying that it’s impossible to find love online. We’re saying it’s very difficult, and not as good a play as going out into the real world and meeting people face to face.

    In fact, Michael proved the point. He read 40,000 headlines and found one wife? Horrible odds! Four hours a day for fifteen months? Holy crap! Give me two hours and twenty dollars and I can find a date for this Saturday. It may not be true love, but then again, it might.

    Dave seems to think that dating sites are better for single parents than going out, and to a certain extent he may be right. For some single parents, there might be no time to go out whatsoever. For them, maybe online dating is the only way to go… but… are they spending four hours a day in front of their computer reading 40,000 headlines? If so… where are their kids at that time? I really just don’t buy it. Finding a mate as a single parent isn’t as hard as it used to be because so many people are single parents. What’s wrong with outside playtime at the park instead of the backyard?

    Posted by hambydammit | July 14, 2010, 1:05 pm
  7. Not to mention that a real encounter/conversation in person with an adult beats trolling online for dating profiles. Especially when there are so many fascinating blogs to dedicate your online time to 😉 !

    Actually, I’d rather talk to an interesting old man at the park than wink at a stranger online. OK, honestly, I’ve never done either, but I’ll take human interaction every time.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | July 14, 2010, 9:33 pm

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