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🥑 The Food Was Terrible 🤢
😡 ...and there wasn't enough of it? 😕
“We are our choices.” -Jean-Paul Sartre1
Ok, time out. #ZachMorris
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A few years ago, I read Kondo's international bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, her spiritual exploration of why you need a clean, de-cluttered house. Honestly, the only reason I read it was that it was December 31st, and I wanted to get one more book on my annual “Books I’ve Read” list, and this seemed like an easy read. I had zero intention of listening to what Kondo writes, but I got the gist: get rid of items in my home that do not spark joy.
In January 2023, Kondo gave an interview in The Washington Post where she said that being a parent of three children means that her house is now messier than ever before, and she’s OK with that. Must be nice to confess this after selling 4 million books and getting two Netflix specials.
Ok, time in.2
I’m willing to give Kondo some slack on this hypocrisy, but the reality is that it is hard to give up our “stuff.” And, for some, it’s harder than others.
Take me. I love keeping my options open (have you seen my to-read pile recently?). I have 50 different blue shirts in my closet, over 300 podcasts saved on my Spotify account, and brought a bag of 10 different Haggadot to my sedarim this Pesah because I can never decide which one I’ll want to use.
Don’t judge me. My family loves me, even if they must tolerate the absurdity…
But it turns out that if I was serious about optimization, I would embrace Kondo’s original message, hypocrisy or not. Turns out that there is a high cost when there are too many options.
In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler imagines that “the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralyzing surfeit4 of it.”5 Somehow, in the future, we would have more choices than ever before, and be miserable because of it.
Overkill? Perhaps. But while Toffler was not a psychologist or an economist, his vision in Future Shock later became known as “choice overload,” the idea that too many choices can lead to less satisfaction and decision paralysis. Ultimately, Toffler’s dystopian vision later became backed by science.
Choice overload is a sibling of decision fatigue. If we assume that people become worse at making decisions when they must make too many decisions, it is almost axiomatic that offering too many choices will result in a similar problem, as choices are simply a series of options for a single decision.
A number of experiments have been done regarding choice overload, but my favorite is an experiment from Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper regarding jam in a grocery store.6 Participants were given free samples of different varieties of jam along with a coupon to purchase one of the options later, only some participants had 6 choices of jam, and others had 24 options of jam. While more people sampled jam when presented with 24 options, more people bought jam when only presented with 6.7
Regarding this experiment, Iyengar and Lepper argue that because “people seem to enjoy extensive-choice contexts more than limited-choice contexts, they may sometimes prefer to make available to themselves many more choices than they can possibly handle,” often resulting in a situation where “Having unlimited options…[leads] people to be more dissatisfied with the choices they make.”8
The findings of Iyengar and Lepper are particularly important for people who make decisions for other Jews (i.e. almost all of the readers of this newsletter). While Jews-in-the-pews may claim that they want their synagogue, day school, JCC, etc. to offer as many options as possible, the evidence suggests that offering too many options can result in people choosing nothing at all, or choosing something, but being dissatisfied with the choice. No matter where you serve, that’s bad for Jewish organizations and Jewish people.
That said, people will always claim to want more options, which creates a kind of paradox. Offer too little, and people will feel that their needs are not being met. Offer too much, and decision paralysis takes over.
The Paradox of Choice
Schwartz argues that people fall on a range in terms of how much they want a choice to be the perfect one, identifying those who want the greatest number of options as “maximizers” and those who are OK with the good enough option as “satisficer” (economist Herbert A. Simon coined the latter term.) A maximizer is a person who will “seek and accept only the best,” whereas a satisficer “has criteria and standards” but will “settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.”9
While one might have a visceral reaction to the idea that the “good enough” option is actually the better choice, Schwartz utilizes Simon’s work to point out that, all things considered, choosing the good enough option is actually “the maximizing strategy.”10 If someone spends hours upon hours doing research about every possible option without making a decision, they might become an expert on the options at the end of the process, but in all likelihood, they will be “nagged by the options they haven’t had time to investigate” and are “likely to get less satisfaction out of the exquisite choices they make.”11
Returning to the Jewish world, this makes me wonder if perhaps we are too dismissive of a “good enough” Jewish institution. Most Jews are not maximizers when looking for Jewish life; they are not looking for an institution that fulfills all of their dreams but rather are satisficers who want something good enough (i.e. does this institution meet tangible needs?). For example, a parent looking for a congregational school is generally not going to make their choice based on whether or not that school was featured in Slingshot, but whether or not the school meets their childcare and transportation needs.12
However, most decision-makers in the Jewish Community are maximizers and are diligent when making personal and familial decisions about synagogues, day schools, camps, and so on. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a maximizer in your own life, but perhaps there are unintended consequences when a decision-maker imposes their personal standards on the broader population.
This tension is yet another reason why data is important because an aggregate number provides someone with a concrete idea of what “good enough” might be. Unless one wants to be paralyzed by too many decisions, figure out a benchmark for “good enough,” and when you reach it, make sure you stay there. Because if you worry too much about every decision, or wait for perfect data, you will be waiting forever.
Like many psychologists, Schwartz created a test to see where on the maximization scale you fall, which you can take by clicking on this link. Don’t worry about searching for other options. This one is good enough…
Katy Milkman AND Barry Schwartz?
The Easiest Choice I Made This Week.
Remember that Photo of Pope Francis?:13 Honestly, I thought it was real. I’m not that bright. Here’s an article and podcast on why so many were fooled (sorry for those who still think it’s a real photo).
The Data Delusion: Moneyball is about a way of thinking, not blind fidelity to doing whatever the numbers tell you. Jill Lepore has an excellent piece in The New Yorker about the pitfalls of the temptation of blind adherence to data.
Research Proves Your Brain Needs Breaks: Brain scans show that sitting in too many meetings has had an adverse effect on our minds, and Microsoft has excellent research providing yet another example of why our minds need regular breaks. Read both.
Trans People Deserve Better Journalism: I’m unequivocal in my support of the rights of transgender people, and many media sources have aided those who wish to spread hateful lies and myths due to a bias toward fairness that hurts real people. Vox has a devastating article that everyone needs to read.
The Anatomy of Work- Global Index: I’m an Asana devotee, and like many productivity apps Asana collects research on work. Here’s their latest research.
Props to my former boss Leslie Lichter, who first told me the quote, “The food was terrible, and there wasn’t enough of it.” It’s still one of my favorites to describe how contradictory feedback can be.
I always wanted to do that. Just like Zach Morris, who once skipped school to go to a Dodgers game by pretending he was Jewish…
NERD ALERT: How did Saved by the Bell go from Indiana in the first season to California in the second season with most of the same characters, minus Ms. Bliss? The world will never know…
Frankly, I had to look up “surfeit” in the dictionary when I first read this passage. Don’t judge me. Surfeit means “excess” or an “excessive amount.”
Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 79, Number 6 (2000), 995-1006.
Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 77.
If you want to read more about this, I would highly encourage you to read Carmel U. Chiswick’s Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition.