The Worst Decision is Indecision: A Lesson from Buridan’s Ass

The 14th century philosopher Jean Buridan is not best known for his contributions to philosophy or science, instead he is best known for a hypothetical situation elegantly referred to as “Buridan’s Ass”.

In an attempt to satirize another philosophical text, Buridan made the hypothetical analogy of an ass, the ass, equally thirsty and hungry, was placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. The hypothetical donkey, unable to decide and continuously going back and forth between the two equidistant options eventually dies.

Buridan's ass

The “ass” has been used as an analogy to illustrate the philosophical paradox between incentives and outcome.

This dilemma is best felt when eating out – imagine yourself sitting in a restaurant hungry and impatient, yet still somehow much undecided on what you want to eat. You question whether to eat pasta or chicken, or perhaps both.

How do you decide?

We often equate freedom with choice. The freedom to do what we want, go where we wish and pursue whatever it is we desire. When we lack choice we feel trapped, depressed and desperate. Modern society demands autonomy, ridicules conformity and extols the virtues of freedom.

And that is exactly what the Information Age has created – unprecedented opportunity and endless choice. For those of us who live in the West, we have never lived in a time when it’s been easier to change careers, learn anything we want, or start a business. The barriers of entry have been knocked down and the world has opened up, driven by independent education and a growing resentment of corporate serfdom.

Yet, there is a cruel irony in this. We aren’t happier.

With too many choices, too many freedoms, we open ourselves up to a new anxiety. A new stress that paralyses us and makes us indecisive; unable to choose between the very freedoms that we so desire.

Psychologists call this the “Paradox of Choice”, an idea best described by one of the most prominent researchers in the field, Barry Schwartz:

“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

Barry sites one of the most interesting studies about this paradox – “The Jam Study”.

“When researchers set up [in a gourmet food store] a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was available for purchase. The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so.”

The food aisle and the restaurant aren’t the only places we feel the pressure of too many possibilities.

We suffer from the paradox of choice because we live in the era of choice.

We have more choices than ever before and consequently more pressure than ever before.

Yes, you now have the opportunity to learn almost anything and work any number of occupations, but you must also choose.

And choosing is stressful.

Not only is choosing stressful. There comes a point when, secretly, we don’t want to know about more “options”, we don’t want to know about more great jobs and people making 100K from some great distant location we’ll probably never go to.

When people are overwhelmed by choices I generally find they choose two different paths:

  1. They convince themselves that their situation is uniquely awesome and find another group of people who suffer worse management, worse remuneration or even higher taxes and they compare – they compare until they feel comfortable in their uniquely special situation, all the while promising themselves that in the not-so-far future they will make better choices and accomplish all their goals. Unfortunately, this is an excellent recipe for stagnation and mediocrity.
  2. Or they attempt to do something.

However the people who attempt to do something don’t have it easy either.

The abundance of choice follows them too; new careers beckon and call, new ways to make money interest them and before they know it, they also feel the pressure of choice.

It is not long before questions like, “maybe I should try this” or “I think I’d really like to..” begin to arise.

There seems to be no escape from the world of endless possibility.

But there is one saving grace. Life is long.

Barring any tragic exceptions aside, most of us will live to be at least eighty. That’s a long time, more than enough time to change careers once or twice. When confronted with abundant opportunity we often pick more than one thing and start a juggling act, trying to pursue multiple goals at once.

But, we don’t need to.

It’s a recipe for disaster, a surefire way to feel overwhelmed and a blueprint for half-done work.

Instead of pursuing dreams or ideas in parallel, why not try them in serial. At an average age of thirty or forty, given that we pursue a career for ten years, this gives us four of five careers or passions we could try.

In a world of too many choices, and what seems like endless opportunity, choices can either empower you or paralyze you.

Regardless of what path you choose, remember this:

The path of inaction will leave you like Buridan’s hypothetical ass, slowly starving in a world of choices; choosing, despite being stressful is better than not.

In the end, the worst decision is indecision.


How do you feel about this? Do you feel overwhelmed by options? How do you deal with that? Drop me a comment below and tell me.