The two hours around dinner time during the weekend are easily the most agonizing times for me, as we sit in front of the TV to find a good movie to watch as a family. The labor of sifting through the films across many genres, considering the preferences of the three of us – me, the missus and the pre-teen – is daunting in itself. And then to choose the movie of the week is a responsibility I don’t get excited about.

Choice. The act of choosing between two or more possibilities. Sold to us as the boon of the civilized world. The word cleverly used to disguise as a gift before one realizes the burden accompanying it. When we exercise a choice, we invariably make a statement about ourselves.

You think I’m complicating things here. Fair enough. I even dread at the prospect of having to choose a “good” curry off the dinner menu for my colleagues.

This happened many years ago and I am giggling as I write this: When food was served at our dinner table, a colleague who arrived late spotted a dish with an unusual aroma and wondered out loud, “who the hell ordered this dish!?”. The awkward silence that ensued was broken by our new manager’s reply, “I did. Is there a problem?”. He was obviously worried about the popularity of his choice. Four more awkward seconds. “Great choice! Looks exciting”, was my colleague’s attempt to avoid the embarrassment. He thought he salvaged the situation until when our manager asked, “Cool, shall I order one more?”.

A similar incident occurred at work but it was not funny. My team toiled for months, working closely with the client team, going through multiple iterations of the visual screen design. The client team was tasked by their project sponsor to replace their legacy system with a state-of-the-art IT system. However during the final presentation, the sponsor was seen grappling with the dilemma: while the prototype looked exactly like what he asked for, he simply did not like it. The whole exercise had to be repeated. The team was disappointed but we took solace in these words from the book Are your lights on ?, “In spite of appearances, people seldom know what they want until you give what they ask for.”

Is it easier when you have to choose something for yourself ?

Not necessarily. Since a lot of mental energy and resources are required to make a choice, you have to be very clear about the context, even if it is as straightforward as deciding to donate your organ. This is due to the Default Effect as they refer it in psychology. For instance, “in countries such as Austria, laws make organ donation the default option at the time of death, and so people must explicitly “opt out” of organ donation. In these so-called opt-out countries, more than 90% of people donate their organs. Yet in countries such as U.S. and Germany, people must explicitly “opt in” if they want to donate their organs when they die. In these opt-in countries, fewer than 15% of people donate their organs at death.”, as described in this Stanford University paper.

This is leveraged in many domains especially in user interface design of apps. You will always find a default choice say, “Save” or a “Pay” button instead of “Cancel”. The other obvious example is the social media. You are constantly fed information tailored to you, to effectively keep you in your bubble.

Then how can we be really free to make the right choices in our lives ? A couple of mind hacks could help. One of them is based on the Via negativa approach, extended further in his book Anti-fragile, by the maverick thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He advises us to figure out what to subtract from our life. Debt, tobacco, bad company are obvious examples. It gets interesting when he quotes Steve Jobs of being “proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things”. He then illustrates the “less is more” approach for dealing with life’s more important but difficult decisions (diet, investments, career choices etc.).

The other technique is to stay still and resist exercising any of the options presented to us. I’m not advocating any form of Zen thinking here. What if status-quo is a better option? For instance, during penalty shootouts, soccer goalkeepers usually either jump to their left or the right but never stand still. However, a 2007 study of “286 penalty kicks in top leagues and championships worldwide” indicates “the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s centre”! This is called the Action Bias which explains why people prefer to do something even if it is counter-productive, as opposed to doing nothing. They do not want to be ridiculed for failing to act.

The movie was awesome. My wife liked the drama, the kid liked the sports bit and I got the necessary inspiration for the upcoming week. Rudy turned out to be a perfect choice in the end!