Saturday, March 1, 2008

When Rational Thinking Becomes Irrational

When is taking something off your plate the best way to get more done? Almost always, it appears. The New York Times provides this article about Dr. Dan Ariely’s new book, “Predictably Irrational.” The book discusses the idea that most people can’t make difficult choices that will reduce their options, usually at the expense of maximizing their potential.

Dr. Ariely openly admits he is not above making some of the same mistakes. The article notes that when trying to decide between two job offers, it was quickly clear that “he and his family would be more or less equally happy in either place. But he dragged out the process for months because he became so obsessed with weighing the options.”

Personally, I see this all the time in my scholarship (and many other places, for that matter). I have a basic plan for what I want to complete in the next few years, but I have countless ideas for new articles and projects, many of which will never go beyond the initial illegible note to myself on a Target receipt. But those slips of paper pile up on my desk, and I usually resist starting one project before I review all my other ideas. Eventually, I do actually start writing, but the time spent on this endeavor is often time wasted and time lost.

Beyond largely personal decisions, Dr. Ariely’s thesis puts a fine point on a lot of difficult policy questions for educators, as well: Should we change the first-year curriculum? Should pro bono work be required to graduate? How do we better prepare our students for practice?

On a broader scale, too, his concept applies: What do we do next in Iraq? Should we cap greenhouse gas emissions? How do we get health care costs under control?

These are all difficult questions, and it is hard to take any options off the table, lest we miss the best option for solving the problem. However, doing nothing, under the guise of considering everything, is a decision, too. Moving forward, at a minimum, I am going to do my best to keep that in mind.

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