Please see this IMPORTANT MESSAGE from The Angry DM!

Playing Mind Games: The Peanut Butter Conundrum

August 28, 2010

Limit Your Players for Their Own Good

Panic, Paralysis, and Perfect Choices

If there were only two types of peanut butter available, the choice would be easy. Either you buy crunchy peanut butter or you buy creamy peanut butter. The differences are immediately obvious and it’s easy to choose the jar that’s right for you. If you like both types of peanut butter, you might be in a pickle (dill, sweet gherkin, cucumber, or garlic available whole, in chips, stackers, or in relish form), but most people can handle this decision easily.

But we don’t have just two types, we have dozens. And the differences between some of those options is a little hazy. Beyond that, there is more to the decision than simply choosing the tastiest brand. If you are health conscious you want the best combination of tastiness and healthiness. In that case, you’re forced to start considering compromises. “I like salt,” you might say, “but is low salt healthy enough? Should I be good and get no salt? Or do I just need to watch out for sodium?” It is entirely possible to become frozen with indecision at this point.

At the same time, the number of options makes a dastardly implication. It suggests that there is a perfect option, a personal, perfect peanut butter. All you have to do is find it. But the truth is that every choice actually involves a trade-off.  Healthy peanut butter doesn’t have tasty salt, for example. So there probably isn’t really a perfect peanut butter. And even if there is, you might not know it if you buy it.

Dissatisfaction and Doubt

After making a choice, it is human nature to evaluate that choice. Once you get home and make a sandwich, you will start to analyze your decision. Did you really choose the perfect peanut butter?

Unfortunately, the peanut butter you chose just can’t stand up to that scrutiny. First, there is no perfect peanut butter out there. Every peanut butter has its flaws. Second, the presence of so many options has convinced you that there is a perfect peanut butter for you. So, you are not just comparing the peanut butter you bought to other peanut butters you’ve had. You’re also comparing it to a chimerical (in the imaginary sense, not the three headed goat-dragon-lion sense) ideal peanut butter you know must be out there.

And so, you will notice all of the flaws. This peanut butter doesn’t have enough flavor. The texture isn’t quite creamy enough. Should you have gotten the no salt instead? It’s very oily. Even if the peanut butter is good peanut butter, the flaws will stand out in your mind and you’ll imagine you made a bad choice.

Alternatively, with only two options available, you’ll just enjoy your peanut butter. After all, you hate that crunchy stuff.

The Weight of the Decision

It needs to be said that not every decision in life carries the same weight. Obviously, not everyone gets neurotic over peanut butter choices. This is just an example and you can imagine the same thing happening when you purchase a car, pick a movie to watch, choose a restaurant, decide who to date, or pick a college major.

However, it is also interesting to note that the presence of too many options can make the decision seem weightier than it is. When you first walked into the grocery store, for instance, you might have just wanted to buy some peanut for a sandwich. But, when you saw the low sodium and fat free options, you might have remembered that your doctor has been admonishing you about your blood pressure. Suddenly, there is more riding on the decision than a sandwich. The wrong choice could kill you!

Making it Worse: Undoing the Decision

Fortunately, there are often ways to undo a bad decision. For example, the peanut butter may have a satisfaction guarantee. Return the unused portion to the store, get your money back, and buy another jar. But does this help? Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t and it can even make the problem worse.

After all, the new peanut butter is still going to have to stand up against the imaginary ideal of peanut buttery perfection and it’s just as likely to fail as the last jar. So, you are back where you started. But, in your mind, you have now failed to find the right peanut butter twice. Perhaps three times. Maybe more. Instead of accepting that you might be wrong and that there may be no perfect peanut butter, you are much more likely to question your own ability to make decisions.

Making it Better: Being Stuck with Peanut Butter

Interestingly, there is a way to short circuit the whole process. If a decision can’t be easily undone, you may actually become happier with it over time.

Instead of peanut butter, let’s suppose you recently bought a new car. After considering approximately six million choices, you settle on the Fnord Tauren. This is not an easy decision to undo. You can’t just return a car (usually), selling it would result in a loss, and it’s too expensive to just throw away a car. Any way you look at it, you’re stuck with it.

So, even though you will start off by imaging the better experiences you would have gotten from other cars, you will eventually start to become comfortable with your choice. That is unless the car is actually a lemon, but it’s a Fnord, so that’s unlikely. You’ll start to see the good features and focus less on the flaws. And you will become satisfied.

The Peanut Butter Conundrum in a Nutshell  (Get It?)

Everyone has doubts when they make choices. It is human nature to question the choices we’ve made and compare the options we chose to the ones we didn’t. The more options we have to choose from and the more similar those options, the more doubts we will have initially and the more likely we are to imagine that a perfect option exists that we simply failed to find. The easier it is to undo a choice, the more likely we are to do so. And the more we undo the choices we’ve made, the less likely we are to be satisfied by any outcome. And, as that happens, we begin to question our own decision making abilities.

On the other hand, if there are fewer options to begin with, we don’t suffer from the illusion that there must exist some perfect choice. It is easier to be satisfied with choices we make if we had few options to begin with. And, even if there are many options, if we can’t undo our decisions, we tend to make the best of the decision and become satisfied over time.

Tags: , ,