Do you ever wonder whether choosing the path on the right or the path on the left might change who you become?

Right now, there's a clutter of choices facing you. A circus of choices; flocks, crowds, yards, swarms, and knots of choices. {Not choosing, in fact, is one choice that just never seems to be on our table.}
     Having to choose cascades onto our everyday lives with such increasing frequency that it seems tyrannical. Profound choices tumble onto the trivial: whether to marry, which pair of jeans; choosing a doctor, choosing a radio station; whether to speak up, which salad to order; choosing an investment, choosing a short-cut; paper-or-plastic, now-or-in-a-minute.
     We realize, of course, that having more choices necessarily increases our chances of choosing wrong. Which we do not want. Avoiding the unwanted outcomes of our decisions is, in fact, a source of anxiety in our lives. In their book, Nudge, Richard Thaler (a theorist of behavioral finance) and Cass Sunstein (a scholar of behavioral economics) write about choices—how we make them and how we might steer ourselves towards making better ones. 
               nudge, verb: to prod [someone] gently, typically with one's elbow, in order to draw their attention to something.
What these authors nudge us towards, draw our attention to, is startling, straightforward, and surprisingly entertaining. Ill-advised investments, unhealthy foods, neglected relationships, unrewarding jobs, toxic environments, wasted time, ill-chosen words, lost opportunities, deteriorating natural resources—there are countless unwanted outcomes our daily choices produce.
     Nudge explores the human biases and blunders that are naturally embedded in our decision-making. Research reveals that as choices become more numerous, or vary on more dimensions, people are more likely to adopt simplifying strategies. Usefully, Thaler and Sunstein describe choice architecture, defaults, expected errors, the structure of complex choices, paths of least resistance, and incentives. The book is embedded with user-friendly nudges. Ones we all need.
     Just as you've probably suspected, when it comes to choice, more is often less. In a beautifully reasoned book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that there is vastly too much choice in our worlds today. This promiscuous crowd of choices in our lives, in fact, often leaves us unsatisfied and feeling abandoned.
     Schwartz explains why we suffer in our choosing—both before, during, and in the aftermath. We learn about the problem of regret (woulda/coulda/shoulda mental minefields) and missed opportunities, why our decisions disappoint, the problem of fault-seeking, and why everything will always suffer from comparison to something else. In short, we start thinking more usefully about choosing. He takes us shopping: to the supermarket, shopping for gadgets, shopping online, shopping for knowledge, shopping for entertainment, medical care, retirement plans, and even beauty. He explores how we choose to work, to love, to pray, and who to become. The Paradox of Choice is full of practical advise, grounded in the science of human choosing, to help us become—well—less choosy.
     Even now, we're choosing. Whether or not to take out a loan, rearrange our investments, cancel a vacation, make a phone call, change a habit, join a group, scold a child, rescue a shelter animal, stop complaining, pick a restaurant, downsize our homes, opt out, make a promise, take a gamble, buy one or two, simplify or supersize, generic or brand, declutter our offices, volunteer, ask a question, answer the phone, send flowers, compete, go to the gym, take a walk, show up, get a clue, buy a lottery ticket (but which numbers to choose?).
     As we each tackle the current circus of choices on our doorstep, a reminder. We still have the inalienable right to make a mess of things, if we want to.


"No, no, you're not thinking. You're just being logical." ~Niels Bohr

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. ~Blaise Pascal

It turns out that we get our happily-ever-afters in diverse and irrational ways. (I find this comforting.) Throughout our lives, we are faced with myriad choices, involving both welcome and unwanted decision-making. The trick to good decisions may not be to amass information—but to discard it.
     Our gut instincts are more often right than we realize. Dr.  Gerd Gigerenzer is a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. In his ground-breaking book, GUT FEELINGS: THE INTELLIGENCE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, he points out how how much of our mental life is grounded in processes alien to logic—gut feelings and intuitions. We have gut feelings about sports, friends, which foods to buy, which job to take, how to invest our money, which short-cut is shortest, who to marry (and other dangerous things). How do we know?
     Gigerenzer invites us on a journey into a largely neglected Land of Irrationality—populated by folks who are partially ignorant, whose time is limited, and whose future uncomfortably uncertain. The limitations of our rational thinking may force our brains to rely on unconscious gut feelings. No matter how carefully we list the pros and cons for a choice in columns on a piece of paper, when we look at the list, sometimes an inner voice tells us that the rational results don't feel right. Our hearts, often, have already decided.
     When we have choices to make, a beneficial degree of ignorance is often helpful. When we don't have enough facts, we rely on intuition rather than good reasons. The recognition heuristic, for example, describes how we infer qualities based on name recognition. (Marketers rely on this instinct in promoting brands.) The truth is that the instinct to go with what we know has survival value in the natural world. By relying on the familiar, early humans were more likely to live to see another day.
     Acting on instinct, however, does not mean we are blindly choosing. Consider a successful athlete who repeatedly catches, throws, or hits a ball without understanding how; nonetheless, the athlete's mind rapidly performs the equivalent of a complex differential mathematical calculation—computing the complex trajectory of a ball. When we successfully perform complex feats without understanding exactly how, we get a glimpse of the value of gut instincts. We have evolved mental methods that operate below our level of consciousness, yet lead us to superior choices. Without gut instincts, our brains would painfully short-circuit, lost in a sea of data.
     Perhaps we should celebrate the irresistible pull of irrational behavior in our lives? Ori and Rom Brafman illuminate rational explanations for a wide variety of our favorite irrational behaviors—then bemusedly suggest when we might want to avoid succumbing to some of them (SWAY: THE IRRESISTIBLE PULL OF IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR). Why do people find it so hard to sell a stock that is plummeting on the market or end a clearly doomed romance? Drawing on new research from behavioral economics, social psychology, and organizational behavior, Sway reveals the variety of forces that feed our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid perceived losses (consequently losing still more). It's comforting to get more familiar with the irrational lures that inhabit our daily lives. {Count me swayed.}
     Dan Ariely has been on a roll with the study of irrationality in recent years. A cognitive psychologist, Dr. Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: THE HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE OUR DECISIONS and THE UPSIDE OF IRRATIONALITY: THE UNEXPECTED BENEFITS OF DEFYING LOGIC AT WORK AND AT HOME. People are consistently poor predictors of their own futures. We are grounded in our present and expect the future to be influenced by the same factors that influence our NOWs, so we neglect to imagine the changes in moods, people, events, finances, and passions that will populate our futures. Ariely is consistently creative and entertaining in sharing his experiments that show how and why we behave irrationally. We not only are faced with making decisions throughout our lives, but (horribly) we have to deal with the decisions other people make. Ariely's writing is funny, fascinating, and seductive—inviting us to a life with some happier decisional outcomes: the unexpected ways we defy logic at work, the IKEA Effect (why we overvalue what we make), why my ideas are better than yours, why we get used to things (but not all things, not always), adaptation and the beauty market, why we respond to one person who needs help but not to many, and the long-term effects of short-term emotions.

     Gut feelings and the struggle with decisions are an extraordinary and inescapable part of our lives, yet a lot of us have been content to remain blissfully ignorant of how gut feelings work. At the same time, we often dwell in the Land of Regret, wailing: "If only!" Our quirky gut feelings play a key role in making our lives rich, satisfying, and meaningful. {These authors may change the way you look at shopping, romance, health care, money, work, and even happiness.} 


I think that they excluded me because they just judge people by the outside, but those people are wrong. You should get to know people more. 
~Teen participant in study

Getting picked and being included are golden. It's one Playground Lesson we learn early and often.
     We're just beginning to learn, however, the extent of how childhood rejection affects those who are chronically rejected. What happens to kids who experience being left out on a daily basis? They are flying under the radar of their teachers and parents, even as their growing brains are being rearranged each time they are told, "You can't play." 
     It's a basic feature of our human experience to feel soothed in the presence of close others and distressed when left out. Recently, thanks to new studies with brain imaging, we're learning more about the painful bio-neurological effects of social rejection. Rejection not only hurts, the brain's physical pain centers light up like candles!  The same area of the brain that lights up during physical pain (anterior cingulated cortex) is active during social exclusion. Apparently, our evolutionary social attachment system (keeping the young near their caregivers) has, over time, piggybacked onto the human physical pain system—in order to promote species survival. Even the expectancy of rejection lights up pain centers in our brain.
    It turns out that our brains may also be wired to the rejection pain of other people. Rejection may hurt our brains, even when we're just watching it happen to someone else. In one recent study, findings indicated that we physically feel the pain of someone else's ostracism as our own.
     Take these findings from scholars into your neighborhood, onto your block. Failing to receive a nod of recognition in the hallways, hearing about a party of friends to which we were not invited, watching colleagues rush off to lunch without us—still hurts. We're adults, but we still wince and wonder. In a child's world, it's worse. Childhood is embedded in groups. Kids are born into a family group, learn in classroom groups, socialize and learn the ropes in play groups, compete in teams, identify territorially with neighborhood groups, and experiment with social structures in cliques. Yet, a hidden culture of social cruelty continues to thrive in every peer group. Tribes.

     We all have tribal minds. Our brains continually sort people out, making quick decisions about who belongs with whom and what that belonging means. Throughout our lives, we will be sorting people into categories of Us and Them. Yet, being rejected will always hurt. It's worth thinking about a little more.

• Eisenberg, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(7), 294-300.
SunWolf, & Leets, L. (2004). Being left out: Rejecting outsiders and communicating group boundaries in childhood and adolescent peer groups. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 32(3), 195-223. 
SunWolf, & Leets, L. (2003). Communication paralysis during peer group exclusion: Social dynamics that prevent children and adolescents from expressing disagreement. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 22, 355-384. 
Wesselmann, E. D., Bagg, D., & Williams, K. D. (2009). “I feel your pain”: The effects of ostracism on the ostracism detection system. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1308-1311.

Taste, v., 1. To distinguish the flavor of by taking into the mouth, 2. To partake of, enjoy, 3. To perceive or recognize by the tongue.

Food is the most primitive form of comfort. ~Sheilah Graham

When it comes to food, we are all intrepid explorers. We’re surrounded by food that we love to eat or refuse to eat. Consider, though, that we might not be tasting the same thing—even when we’re eating the same thing.
     In anthropology, we study a culture’s rituals, beliefs, sacred objects, patterns of behavior. An anthropologist would be an excellent person, consequently, to give us some insight into the world of eating and taste, but, alas, they haven’t taken it on. 
     Food is at the center of our earliest stories and rituals, from Adam and Eve, to sacrifices and punishments. We date, celebrate, mourn, and comfort ourselves with food. The earliest social rules a child is taught are about eating. We fantasize about the delights of tasting our favorite foods.
     We’ve always had a fixation with sweetness—a complicated love affair chronicled by writer Joanne Chen in her book, THE TASTE OF SWEET (insert warm thick chocolate chip cookie approximately here). Sweet is a loyalty that will follow us to our last days. We bond with those who like foods we like and are puzzled by those who do not. What if, though, the way food tastes is quite different for many of us? 
     Even in the same bio-family, our tongues are radically different in the density of their taste buds, so we are not, in fact, tasting any food in the same way. Researchers who study such things have discerned three types of tasters: SUPER TASTERS, MEDIUM TASTERS, NON-TASTERS. It’s intriguing. 
     Supertasters experience taste with greater intensity than the average person, with extra taste buds. [They have one or two dominant alleles for the gene TAS2R28.] Supertasters perceive more nuanced flavors in food. They are more sensitive to bitter tastes and fattiness, often disliking raw broccoli, coffee-straight-up, and dark chocolate. Further, they perceive sweetness more, the textural aspects of dairy products more, and chili pepper hotness more. {They also tend to weigh less.} 
     While 25% of us are supertasters, another 25% are non-tasters (lowest density of taste buds), with 50% of us experiencing food as medium tasters. Some studies have shown that women and people from Asia, Africa, and South America are more likely to be supertasters. 
     Dr. Beverly Tepper, a food science professor at Rutgers University, studies taste genetics. She found that the bitter chemical 6-n-prophylthiouracil (PROP) distinguishes between those who are supertasters, tasters, and non-tasters. When she lectures, she offers her audience small filter papers embedded with the chemical to put on their tongue. Immediately, the differences are apparent. She reports, “It is absolutely striking. You can see it on people’s faces. Those sensitive to the compound usually grimace like a baby tasting its first Brussels sprout. The non-tasters look curiously around the room, wondering what the fuss is about because it tastes like a piece of paper to them.” 
     I’ve been offering students in some of my classes a chance to find out what type of taster they might be and gain understanding about why other people enjoy food differently. Last week my law students each placed a strip of PTC paper on their tongue and were shocked as they looked around and saw such different reactions. Yesterday, parents of incoming first-year students at one of my lectures had the same experience.
               Every glimpse into how we each experience the world differently is startling and, ultimately, delicious.



Most of the time, we want to be right more than anything, don't we?

The intriguing thing is that even when we ARE wrong, at the time, it feels like we're right. So, how does it feel to be wrong? Exactly the same way it feels to be right. It's only finding out that we were wrong that is infuriating. {We were quite satisfied, however, during the entire time we were, in fact, being wrong.}

I'm reading Kathryn Schulz' treasure of a book, BEING WRONG: ADVENTURES IN THE MARGIN OF ERROR (2010). Schulz is a journalist who also writes for the Freakonomics blog of the New York Times. So she knows how to look at ordinary events in our social lives and get us thinking about them, differently. She's an original observer of human behavior who writes with perfect comic timing about, "Wrongology." I should probably offer a course at the university called "Wrongology 101." I suspect it'd fill in a nanosecond at registration. We need to master the skill of admitting, "I was wrong," but we haven't.

For most of us (okay, all of us, actually), we've only spent time thinking about wrong-thinking when we're in the middle of trying to point out to someone else how wrong they are. As a culture, we reject error. Of all the things we're taught in school, no one gives us a clue about how to pick up the pieces and gracefully be wrong. So, as Schulz smilingly shoves in our faces, we collapse when our truths are pulled out from under us. Maybe, she suggests, we're wrong when we think about being wrong.

Our brains are burdened with error-blindness, we have amnesia for our mistakes, and our minds instantly overwrite our proven-wrong beliefs: "This is the received wisdom about error: that it is dangerous, humiliating, distasteful, and, all told, un-fun in the extreme," (p. 27). The most fun you will have, however, with glimpsing your own wrongness, may be in reading this book. From everyday stuff we get wrong, the paradox of error, the role our senses and rogue mind play in masking our errors, and the seductive allure of certainty, it turns out to be fun reading about being wrong. Maybe, she points out, being wrong is utterly necessary and the only (un-fun) way towards some of our best adventures.

Still, being wrong haunts us. As Schultz points out, we can relish being right about almost anything—but rightness never turns out to be ours to enjoy all the time. An impressive amount of the time, actually, someone is annoyingly nearby to point out to us our wrongness. Worth thinking about. The truth is, though, being right is still more fun. 

Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say, “Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent.”

—Epictetus, Discourses

It is increasingly apparent—as I happily consume the newest neuroscience scholarship while unavoidably observing the behaviors of people around me—that our brains are social. What happened to rational? Not so much.
     Our social thinking may be a whole lot more interesting, in fact, than any other kind of thinking we do. Since people prefer a predictable world, we try to make sense of other people (as well as ourselves, on rare occasion). When we focus on the words or behaviors of other people, we pull out our favorite Yardsticks to do some measuring. Here’s two yardsticks I’m becoming increasingly familiar with:
     The What-I-Imagine-I-Would-Have-Done Yardstick: We adore comparing the behaviors of others to our sense of what we would have done under like circumstances. [Neglecting to account for the fact that, based on someone else’s personality and life, we likely would never be in like circumstances.]
     The Attribution-Error Yardstick: Why did she say that? Why did he do that? How come some people are so rude? Interacting with people presents events to us that require explanation—about causes. Especially when they deviate from what we think is appropriate. The Fundamental Attribution Error explains that when WE make a mistake, our brain automatically sees valid external reasons for that error, but when someone else makes a mistake, our brain quickly notices internal reasons. I wasn’t given a fair chance, you didn’t try hard enough.
     The thing about our cognitive yardsticks is that we’re largely unaware that we’re using them and they hardly ever get the measurements right. (Or at least YOUR yardstick might not.)

    Click on pool to feed fish.


    Continues to play with words, crayons, and odd possibilities.



    August 2011
    July 2011