The benefits of fewer options

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On the plane ride home yesterday, I read this interesting article that is currently the most e-mailed on The New York Times web site:

The next time you’re juggling options — which friend to see, which house to buy, which career to pursue — try asking yourself this question: What would Xiang Yu do?

Xiang Yu was a Chinese general in the third century B.C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making.

He crushed his troops’ cooking pots and burned their ships.

He explained this was to focus them on moving forward — a motivational speech that was not appreciated by many of the soldiers watching their retreat option go up in flames.

But General Xiang Yu would be vindicated, both on the battlefield and in the annals of social science research.

He is one of the role models in Dan Ariely’s new book, “Predictably Irrational,” an entertaining look at human foibles like the penchant for keeping too many options open. General Xiang Yu was a rare exception to the norm, a warrior who conquered by being unpredictably rational.

Most people can’t make such a painful choice, not even the students at a bastion of rationality like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics.

In a series of experiments, hundreds of students could not bear to let their options vanish, even though it was obviously a dumb strategy (and they weren’t even asked to burn anything).

Read the New York Times article.

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