2006-01-10

Overwhelmed by Choice?

Many people complain that nowadays there is too much choice. 20 ways of having your coffee, 50 types of ketchup, ten political parties in countries of less than 10 million...
I agree that in many cases the choice can be overwhelming, but I think that the solution is not to eliminate diversity. The variety (in most cases) is there for a reason: Contextuality. Our society has become so diverse, that people coming from different contexts need different things. In the past, people were more localized, so that they had to learn only the customs of their town or city. Now we need to learn the ways of the world. But since we all learn different aspects of it, we end up with different worldviews. And if there is a variety in the population, there needs to be a variety in the social institutions serving it (Ashby dixit). Vegans DO fly in airplanes...

On the other hand, too much choice overloads our cognitive abilities. Fifty years ago, George Miller published a paper showing that people tended to be able to keep in their minds only seven plus-minus two things at a time. In other words, after more or less seven types of fries, we lose track of what is going on...

But if there is a necessity for the variety, the solution should lie in making the information cognitively accessible, e.g. grouping similar objects in categories to choose from, and afterwards choose within categories... well, that is what everybody does. Imagine if we would browse Amazon.com and there would be no categories! But it seems this is not enough for all cases. Search engines can help in the cyberworld, but what about the supermarket? What about politics? There is no easy answer, but my feeling is that systems could be developed to aid the cognitive decision making... something along the lines of what Marko Rodriguez and Dan Steinbock propose in their paper "Societal-Scale Decision Making Using Social Networks"...

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