Perhaps, like many others you have a strong opinion as to how the government should be handling the CV -19 pandemic. Some people seem to favor the Swedish model in which that government has for the most part adopted a hands-off approach and others seem to favor stringent lockdowns. When I’ve looked at message boards most everyone seems to agree that they would like to be the ones to choose the way forward. That’s interesting, but a more interesting question is would we really like to choose and would we if we could?
In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that: instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice increases our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. Whether you’re deliberating between breakfast cereals, TV shows, career paths, pension plans, or lifetime partners, the amount of options out there can be overwhelming. Schwartz suggests that there are many circumstances in which we would rather have someone else decide.
Then there’s the famous trolley dilemma which I’ve copied here with a few minor edits from an article written by Laura D’Olimpio for the “Conversation.”.
Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.
As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realize that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.
However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.
So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?
Now consider a variation of this dilemma.
Imagine you are standing on a footbridge above the tram tracks. You can see the runaway trolley hurtling towards the five unsuspecting workers, but there’s no lever to divert it.
However, there is large man standing next to you on the footbridge. You’re confident that his bulk would stop the tram in its tracks whereas you are too small.
So, would you push the man on to the tracks, sacrificing him in order to stop the tram and thereby saving five others?
The outcome of this scenario is identical to the one with the lever diverting the trolley onto another track: one person dies; five people live. The interesting thing is that, while most people would throw the lever, very few would approve of pushing the fat man off the footbridge.
Sheena Iyengar is a blind American psychologist who specializes in the study of choice, perhaps affected by her own limited choices as a sightless woman.
She is the author of a book, “The Art of Choosing” in which she asks questions such as whether choice is always good, or whether the desire for choice is universally shared by different cultures.
Her surprising research conclusions have profound implications with regard to how much control, choice or freedom is optimal, and the circumstances when people might not want those things.
Most of the time we like the freedom to choose, to be in control of our fate. But in the mid-1990s, Iyengar conducted a now famous study in which research assistants set out pots of jam on tables in a supermarket.
Sometimes shoppers were offered a choice of six jams to taste and other times different shoppers were offered a choice of 24 jams. What Iyengar discovered was that although more people sampled the jams when there was a larger selection, many more people bought jam when there was a smaller selection. She concluded that although we like choice, we can become overwhelmed by too much of it.
Professor Iyengar also compared the French and American healthcare systems. Those systems handle decisions about when to withdraw life-sustaining treatment from a terminally-ill infant differently.
In the US, parents make the decision to end the treatment, while in France, the doctors decide.
Questioning groups of families subsequently, Iyengar found that French families weren’t as angry or confused about what had happened, and focused much less on how things might have been or should have been than the American parents who struggled with guilt and resentment. In other words, there are some things we might really not want to choose to control.
So, if you could decide how the government should proceed in the coming days with regard to choices about unlocking Thailand, would you want to make those decisions?
About The Author:
Patrick Mattimore, now retired and living in Pattaya, was an Adjunct Professor of Legal Reasoning and Case Briefing: Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing, teaching psychology to students there. He has also been an online columnist for the Phuket Gazette and its partner newspaper China Daily, covering a variety of topics from why rumors spread panic to selfies among the tuhao.