By On February 29th, 2008

The human desire for one to “keep options open”

Recently, some MIT students, under the direction of professor Dan Ariely, took a test to examine the unproductive human desire for one to “keep options open.” Holding on to relationships that you know won’t work, keeping that outdated shirt that you haven’t worn in years, purchasing that extra protection plan on the camera you just bought, are all examples of most likely unproductive, encumbering decisions that we choose to make just to keep our options open. One of the role models in Professor Ariely’s new book, “Predictably Irrational,” is Chinese general Xiang Yu who, after crossing the Yanntze River into enemy territory with his troops, destroyed all of his troops pots for cooking and ships. The general told them that it was to keep them focused on moving forward. The following is an excerpt of an article by the New York Times that discusses this oddity of human behavior:

In the M.I.T. experiments, the students should have known better. They played a computer game that paid real cash to look for money behind three doors on the screen. (You can play it yourself, without pay, at tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com.) After they opened a door by clicking on it, each subsequent click earned a little money, with the sum varying each time.

As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.

Even after students got the hang of the game by practicing it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.

They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.

Click here to read the rest of this article from the New York Times

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