In a group of friends, it can be a nightmare to make decisions, e.g. where to go for dinner. “We could go to Restaurant A, B, or C? What do you think?” “Those all sound fine,” replies everyone in unison. Maybe one gets ruled out because they don’t have vegetarian options or whatever, but for all you know D might get thrown in to compensate. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced this numerous times; it’s a relationship meme, for goodness sake, and only gets worse as the number of people grows.
In social interactions, the reasons for this problem seem to be twofold: first, people don’t want to appear aggressive. You might call this kind of person the Tyrant, one who says “I want to go to B and I don’t care what you think!”; essentially the Tyrant tries to make a unilateral decision at the expense of other’s feelings. But this is a mistake: the Tyrant tends to exaggerate small differences in the choices, and fails to aggregate preferences where appropriate. So people try to avoid being a Tyrant in their group. Additionally, if someone else is acting as a Tyrant, it’s beneficial not to give in, lest they install themselves as the Dinner Czar for all future get-togethers.
A second, more pernicious failure mode appears in people attempting to optimize. Call this the Overthinker, who says “Well A is cheaper, but B has slightly better beer. Still, C is closer to the house and parking is simpler. We could go to D if we want to go to the bar afterwards, but …” The Overthinker can’t stop until every upside and caveat is taken into account in a unified model of “where we should go tonight”, but is easily slowed or stopped by incommensurable comparisons. After ruling out any immediately-unacceptable options, the Overthinker often makes the mistake of neglecting opportunity costs; the time spent optimizing is not worth the gain in enjoyment. It would be much better to just go somewhere, wherever that might be.
If you’re neither a Tyrant nor an Overthinker, you might think you have to be a passive member of the group, without a strong opinion. Not so! A passive member wouldn’t have a strong preference, but we’ve already said that your preference is to go somewhere. Now! Not later! So I advocate a stance you might call Neutral Tyrant: “I don’t care where we go, but let’s go!” The Neutral Tyrant is forceful like the Tyrant, but without a strong specific decision in mind.
The Neutral Tyrant may suggest flipping a coin. The Neutral Tyrant may propose a random person chooses this time, someone else next time. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what the decision is; it is more important that a decision be made in a timely manner.
As with everything, this example can be generalized by zooming out to the Meta Level. Seeing this situation as a member of a class of related situations, it becomes a model for others you may find in life. The class I have in mind is the set of scenarios where there are many options, of which are all potentially worth doing, but the differences between them are slight.
What are some situations like this? Well, to name a few:
- Deciding what to order once you’re at the restaurant;
- Picking out clothes;
- Planning your path through a grocery store (how much time can you really save?);
- Which item on your To Do list should you do first?
My favorite example is the To Do list (which I’ve been making every day lately). A To Do list is, at its core, a list of things worth doing. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to organize a To Do list–maybe something is urgent and should be done first–but if not, anything on the list is something you should do. So stop thinking about which you most feel like doing and just do one of them.
You’ll preferentially end up doing the things you like most, or which are least tedious, or whatever, but as long as they remain worth doing it’s likely better than spending time deliberating. If, after some time, one of the tedious items becomes urgent, you can do that immediately. Deliberation is friction in your system which, as long as you’re moving in roughly the right direction, is best minimized.
When you’re a one-person group, the good news is that you don’t have to convince anyone to agree with you; you can just decide unilaterally. In this way you get to be a Neutral Tyrant and decide quickly without any unnecessary friction. The main enemy here is overthinking. Just pick a restaurant.