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.

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14 Responses to Playing Mind Games: The Peanut Butter Conundrum

  1. BoyGenius on August 30, 2010 at 2:41 am

    I’ve never considered myself much of a DM. For me, the amount of work involved outweighs the fun of storytelling.

    That said, I am personally a big supporter of limiting the players. Back when I was playing AD&D I despised Monks and Bards, because the monk ought to be an effing Cleric, and was just way overpowered.

    And Bards…well, by the time you got to be a Bard back then..you tipped the balance so much you may as well just be a demigod. And they still annoy me to this day, and I always outlaw them as pc’s.

    I’ve also been pretty strict to support the story. For instance I routinely outlawed some races, or forced the party to all be human, because I wanted to keep the other races mysterious.

    You make it up to the players in other ways. By making sure that the restrictions aren’t just arbitrary (hatred of Monks being the exception) but that they actually play into the storyline, and true role-players will get invested no matter what.

    Powergamers and Min/Maxers have a serious problem with this philosophy, and they can get bent as far as I’m concerned.

    Maybe that’s why people don’t ask me to DM very often.

  2. Slimboy on August 30, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Again, you’ve described something that’s been rattling around in my head with no name on it. In my current game group, there are two Min-Max types and two others who don’t seem to know how to cope with a roll that doesn’t lead to success. All four of which are just destroyed by the amount of options available. The latter two can’t function round-to-round, sometimes. One of my better players is a rank novice who is content to eldritch blast every round with her warlock. It’s effective, and she’s happiest with her character. Every now and then she throws down a big blast, but they usually miss, and she’s fine with that, because eldritch blast never lets her down. Honestly, though, I’m probably going to bust everybody back to 3rd ed, just to let them play characters, instead of stat blocks.

  3. The Angry DM on August 30, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    @BoyGenius: You would be surprised when it comes to Power Gamers and Min/Maxers, which I mention briefly in the article. I’ve noticed some can be prone to excessive tweaking and frustration in their pursuit of perfection and that can be a result of Peanut Butter Burnout except that they don’t realize it. I’ve found in past groups that often, players who complain about limitations, thrive under them, relax, and have more fun. Again, this is just an observation and it doesn’t apply to everyone, but the psychology behind it is sound.

    @Slimboy: I don’t want to start an edition war or anything, but, where 3rd Edition offered fewer codified options during combat, it still offered a dizzying array of decision points in character generation, many of which seemed much more important than they really were. I’m not saying not to do it, I’m just saying not to expect 3rd to solve your problems without some imposed limitations – which can also be accomplished in 4th Edition. You might want to look into 4E Essentials (and introduce it as a “hey, let’s try this out for fun” thing at first) which at least seems to offer players the chance to pick how many choices they want to deal with. Give the Red Box a try, perhaps, when it comes out this month.

  4. BigGoon on August 31, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    I’m allergic to Peanut Butter.

    It’s amazing how comforting that sentence is. I often get an astonished reaction from acquaintances. “How do you survive?” “What do you do for lunch?” “How bad is it?” It’s actually a relief in someways. I have a thousand options for lunch, the number of options are staggering, and having one less is a relief. Especially because Peanut Butter is sooo popular.

    The same thing can be said for Multiclass and Hybrid class characters. The number of new optimizations for characters is overloading. My first character was a multiclassing character, and I regret it. He ended up being half a rogue, half and fighter, and half a elf – in other words, he was half a character.

    I wish I was allergic to multiple classes.

  5. The Angry DM on August 31, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    @BigGoon: I don’t think I could live without peanut butter, though, depending on the seriousness of the allergy, you might not be able to live with peanut butter.

    You can always impose your own limitations. Make a pledge to be a one class guy if you feel the number of options weighing down on you. Or, if you are feeling really crazy, roll randomly for your race/class and stick with that. Or ask the DM or another party member to pick for you.

  6. Valkyri9 on September 1, 2010 at 8:59 am

    I blame the parents who tell their children, “Don’t make that face. Try something new! How do you know you’ll hate that dish if you don’t try it first?” thus instilling the need to try everything so as to ensure you don’t miss out on something good.

  7. LowSlash on September 1, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I’m definitely a peanut butter burnout, and am slightly ashamed to say I just switched characters, albeit to one that I’m much happier with both mechanically and developmentally.

    In terms of restrictions on character building, I’m very much looking forward to a low-magic campaign that my friend is developing; as all the PCs will be from the same small town, we must be human and can only choose martial classes.

  8. Colmarr on September 2, 2010 at 2:22 am

    Interesting article, particularly in relation to Min/Maxers and Peanut Butter.

    It matches the experience of my group (the two players who I would nominate as the greatest min/maxers are also the two who suffer most from character wanderlust.

    The players who are most “into” their characters seem perfectly content to stick with their choices.

  9. Josh W on October 11, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    At first I thought you were talking about choice paralysis, so I dug out this article about it. But even if it’s mostly irrelevant, the fun thing about this is that both sets of studiers think their studying “human nature” and get opposite results, never considering whether being in different countries makes any difference:

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/9cebd444-cd9c-11de-8162-00144feabdc0.html

    But then I realised you were talking about choice regret, and it remembered someone talking about their complaints about D&D: “I did want to play my character, but more than that I wanted to test out the right character to fit the situation” They ended up making loads of characters in their spare time and never playing with them, while constantly considering finding ways to retire their main character.

    That’s a paraphrase of who knows who, but it fits some of my experience; if character creation is a fun game, then people will want to make new characters, so it’s not so bad when you kill them off, but if character creation is too fun compared to your game, then people will want to keep on repeating those first few choices, and not continue into your world. Harsh as it might sound they can get better feedback (in terms of satisfaction, learning and feeling of discovery) from exploring the configuration space of the character generation stuff than they do exploring your world. (as a world, rather than as a boundary condition of their real game!)

  10. [...] Not to mention that the Analysis Paralysis factor outlined in many articles wherein things like peanut butter and jam are used as reference points. In summary, and at least in this case I can honestly [...]

  11. npinkert on January 18, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Agreed. In my character generation, I try to think of a personality type and build around it. I spend my skill points and train feats based on what my character would get. I usually end up using most of the skills and feats in game, and it always leads to interesting scenarios.
    Most of my fellow players spend hours deciding whether they want an extra 5HP or +1 attack bonus. In the end, it won’t really mean that much.
    As a DM, I merely outlaw PH3. Although this doesn’t mean I won’t use the races or classes for NPCs.

  12. Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar | The Id DM on March 16, 2011 at 7:54 am

    [...] in two ways. The first is the “bridge is broken” device mentioned above. You are the DM, and it is acceptable at times to say, “No.” The second is going along with things for a while to determine if there is a way to get the PCs [...]

  13. [...] Hits, Sly Flourish and At Will for helping me finally get it. It was AngryDM’s post about The Peanut Butter Conundrum and Winning D&D that really began my true understanding of the right way to play 4e. It turns [...]

  14. FallingTeeth on January 12, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Funny article, crafty metaphors. But ranting, raving, controlling, you people are a little too much on the OCD side for my taste.

    Just sayin’.

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