The next time you evaluate your options — which people to be friends with, which career to pursue, whether to give up everything, pack your bags and move to Norway or to text your ex. boyfriend/girlfriend back when they suddenly miss you past midnight — try testing yourself with a simple question: What would Xiang Yu do?
Xiang Yu, a Chinese general in the third century B.C. took his troops across the Yangtze River into the enemy territory and tested his allies by conducing an experiment in decision making. He destroyed all of their ships and cooking pots. He explained this was to focus them on moving forward — a motivational speech that was not appreciated by many of the soldiers watching their retreat option go up in flames. None-the-less General Xiang Yu would be vindicated, both on the battlefield and in the annals of the social scene research.
He is one of the protagonists in Dan Ariely’s book, “Predictably Irrational,” which has had an impeccable influence on my life. The book reveals an entertaining look at human foibles like the penchant for keeping too many options open. General Xiang Yu was the true example of an exceptional man, a warrior who conquered by being unpredictable rational.
Not many have the ability to make such a painful choice, not even Dan Ariely’s guinea pigs from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is a professor of behavioral economics. Series of experiments were conducted where hundreds of students could not bear to let their options disappear, despite it being a genuinely dumb strategy as they weren’t even asked to burn anything.
It was a simple experiment in a form of a game, which eliminated any excuses for refusing to let go. Essentially human beings tend to keep their options open (just in case). Heated seats may be completely useless but evaluating the fact that your grandma may join you for a stroll around the city will have you reconsider your options. Your last relationship was poisonous for your personal wellbeing, but you hate to just zap the equally poisonous friendship.
Your son struggles at football, tennis and badminton, but you won’t let him drop one of the sports, who knows? Maybe he will get better at some stage.
Circulating back to the M.I.T. experiments, the students who undertook the test should have known better, but their irrationality took over as they played a computer game that paid real cash to look for money behind three doors on the screen. After they opened a door by clicking on it, each click earned a little money, with the amount varying each time.
Each player was allowed up to 100 allotted clicks, they could switch between rooms to search for higher payoffs. Initially the best strategy was to quickly find the highest paying room and settle on the highest rewards. Students were flummoxed when a new visual feature was added to the game. If they stayed out of any room, its doors would begin to shrink and eventually disappear.
Ideally student should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t stand the thought of it. They wasted a remarkable amount of clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings went down by 15 percent. New features such as penalties for switching were introduced — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students continued to make the irrational decision of going back to the other rooms and frantically keeping all their doors open.
Why on earth were they so attached to those doors? The players, like the parent of the underachieving son, were just trying to keep their future options open. However this is what any irrational human being would say and it wasn’t the real reason. According to Dr. Ariely and his collaborator in the experiments, Jiwoong Shin, an economist who is now at Yale.
They played with players’ motivations by introducing yet another twist to the plot. This time, even if a door vanished from the screen, players could make it reappear whenever they wanted. Despite knowing that it wouldn’t cost them anything to make the door reappear, they frantically continued to prevent doors from vanishing.
While they did not care so much about maintaining flexibility for the future to come. What really motivated them was the desire to prevent the immediate pain of watching a door close.
“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says. In his experiment, the price was easy to measure as they used cash. However, in life the costs are less obvious — useless friendship results disappointment or arguments. If you’re afraid to drop any project at the office, you will pay for it at home.
“We may work more hours at our jobs,” Dr. Ariely writes in his book, “without realizing that the childhood of our sons and daughters is slipping away. Sometimes these doors close too slowly for us to see them vanishing.”
Dr. Ariely is a victim of such problems himself and doesn’t deny it. When he was trying to decide between job offers from M.I.T. and Stanford, he recalls, with a week or two it was transparent that his family wouldn’t mind either one as their happiness levels would be similar in either place. However he dragged out the process for multiple months as the irrational obsession began to weigh his options.
“I’m just as workaholic and prone to errors as anyone else,” he says.. “I have way too many projects, and it would probably be better for me and the academic community if I focused my efforts. But every time I have an idea or someone offers me a chance to collaborate, I hate to give it up.”
Question is, what should be done in such situation? Dr. Ariely suggests to develop more social checks on overbooking. He sets marriage as a clear 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.”
However, we can also try to do it on our own. Ever since conducting the door experiments, Dr. Ariely states that he has made a conscious effort to cancel projects and forward his ideas to colleagues. He urges the rest of us to resign from committees, end shit relationships, prune holiday card lists, rethink hobbies, erase your exes and remember the lessons of door closers like Xiang Yu.
If you think the general’s tactics seem too harsh, Dr. Ariely suggests another protagonist, Rhett Butler, with the remarkable moment of unpredictable rationality at the end of his marriage. Scarlett, as would the rest of us, cannot stand the pain of ending it for good, however Rhett sees the marriage’s futility and shuts the doors with astonishing elan. Simply, as he doesn’t give a fuck.