The Illusion of Choice


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Someone hands you a free vanilla ice cream cone. “Yummy!” you think, as you walk away, happily snacking on the delicious treat.

How to Turn a Simple Enjoyment into a Complex Confusion

Let’s contrast that excitement you feel over the simple gift, to a similar scenario, only this time, the kind stranger gives you the option to choose from among 25 different ice cream flavors. Chocolate. Mango delight. Mint. Cookies n’ Crème. Bubble gum. Blueberry blast. And the assortment of flavors goes on, and on, and on. How do you feel this time? A little overwhelmed? Confused? What was once a simple pleasure, has now become a stress-inducing task as you mull over all the options, wanting to make sure you choose the very best flavor. As the number of options goes up, so does the stress associated with making the decision, and unfortunately as you may have discovered with our scenario, the contentment over your ultimate choice.

Does Choice Really Empower the Individual?

While choices are provided to empower the individual, they often have the opposite effect. In the practice of medicine, there is a process known as patient autonomy.  In simplest terms, patient autonomy is the right of the patient to have complete control over the course of medical treatment they will be receiving, without any attempt by medical providers to influence decisions. While ethical circumstances necessitate the practice of patient autonomy, patients often find themselves overwhelmed with choosing the best form of medical action, completely on their own.

A Case of “Analysis Paralysis”

Let’s examine a fictitious medical case study of a patient named John. John has just learned from his doctor that he has a rare disease that he has never heard of. His medical provider, Dr. Smith, does her due diligence in explaining two different routes of treatment, and follows up with the all the possible side-effects of each treatment. Overwhelmed by the life-altering decision before him, John asks Dr. Smith which path she would choose if she were in his circumstances. Graciously declining his plea for help, Dr. Smith again leaves the burden of decision to John.

He is left full of anxiety and stress at the task before him. Simple direction and guidance is what John desires, but instead he finds information overload and a case of analysis paralysis. The person with the least amount of expertise on the situation is left in complete control of the future course, and finds himself figuratively paralyzed by the decision before him. He needs an expert’s help.

While I am not advocating for a dissolution of patient autonomy, (as there are other ethical and moral implications that I have not touched on) I think this case study can serve as a symbol for the complexities and stress that can ensue when decisions are left to those with little to no expertise on a matter.

How Does this Relate to Education?

In the traditional classroom, many students find themselves in a similar state of confusion and stress as John, when it comes to deciphering the information given to them in class. As stress and depression in students is a mounting issue, educators and parents should be asking themselves, “What can we do to alleviate stress, while still encouraging higher levels of learning and success?” As one indicator of stress is a multitude of choices, educators should work to limit student decisions to a minimum. Limiting choice, reduces risk, ultimately increasing student confidence, performance and success.

Remember the ice cream scenario, first mentioned at the beginning of this article? Let’s apply that same concept to how students can attain success in the classroom. The reason there was contentedness and enjoyment in the first ice cream scenario, because the need to decide was eliminated. The individual only needed to focus on what was currently being presented, and was not being confused by alternative choices or paths. In the classroom, teachers can similarly provide students with enjoyable learning experiences, by streamlining education, and simplifying the information intake. Teaching students little-by-little, and allowing them to build on previous foundations created will increase confidence while ridding students of any “analysis paralysis” that may be caused by information overload.

Applying LSA Core Concepts : Expert

The Leadership Society of Arizona believes that students everywhere should minimize their decision making, so they can stress less and be more productive. Here are some easy steps:

  1. Recognize that you don’t know.
    1. If you did know the outcome between two decisions and knew that one was truly better than the other, then you wouldn’t have to make a decision. Math should not take longer than an hour to solve one problem. It only takes that long because you don’t know the best way to do it.
  2. Find someone who does know (an expert)
    1. Most of the time, people around us have the answers to our problems. Often times we overlook that teachers are there to educate students and are willing to help. Other times there are friends who are taking the same class or co-workers who have the skills that can help us to be more productive. And if all else fails, the internet can provide solutions to nearly anything.
  3. Try their solution
    1. If you don’t end up trying what the expert tells you to do, then there will continue to be the same issues as before. The expert should make things simple, easier and more productive for you.
    2. What if the solution doesn’t work? If the challenge does not go away, then you should continue looking for answers until the problem is resolved. Procrastinating an issue or letting it sit will not encourage growth. Try out new things until you find something that works.

Try out these simple tips to minimize decision making in your life.  See how they can be a benefit to you. and thank you for reading!

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