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August 28, 2008


>The obvious choices, like Pepsi over Coke, will take very little time.

I think you made a typo there? Coke over Pepsi.

; )

When I had to choose which university to attend, I made my decision by rolling a die. Of course, it wasn't just any die. It was a d20! ;)

Sophie's Choice?

For minor choices, I like the strategy (I may actually have heard it here) "flip a coin, see how you feel about the result, and act on that feeling".

Formally, this is a good use for meta-probability assignments; the greater the variance in the probability distribution over [the difference in expected utilities after gathering more information], the greater the payoff of seeking information.

Of course, if you're trying to gather more information on two different universities on different sides of the country, it makes it a bit hard. And if you consider that a substantially large part of your experience will be determined by things that are impossible or difficult to predict in advance (like roommates, hall-mates, the quality of specific teachers) (and this applies doubly or more for graduate programs) perhaps in the end you *are* better off flipping that coin.

Fucking school.

When I'm fighting in Go, there are often moves that look like they're either very good or very bad, and I have to think for a bit to determine which.

I've seen this claim from behavioral economists before. It shouldn't be hard to prove that the marginal expected value of information-gathering is *maximal* (for constant information-gathering opportunities) when two choices have equal expected value. Whatever "harder choices matter less" means, it should be consistent with that.

flip a coin, see how you feel about the result, and act on that feeling

It's more amusing if you get the outside input from other people. (but it's biased)

Peter, in chess there are similar moves, and the reason is that the moves create a more tactical situation, a more unstable, more chaotic (in the technical sense) situation, and you have to actually go and calculate what would happen in concrete cases to decide. I believe they're often called moves that "create opportunities", for both sides.

"When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong." -- Richard Dawkins

For minor choices, I like the strategy (I may actually have heard it here) "flip a coin, see how you feel about the result, and act on that feeling".

Same. It is fun to see others' reactions to that. Because what to order at a restaurant is such a momentous decision that a coin flip is inappropriate? Nah, probably just that it is an odd thing to do. But the first time you take someone else through that exercise is great, as they realize they already knew what they wanted the answer to be.

I blinked and almost missed this.

The classic example is picking people for a sports team. The difference in performance from the very top superstars is much greater than the guys who just make the team.

So the superstars are obvious choices, but there isn't a whole lot of difference between the guys who just make the team and the guys who just don't.

The opposite is worth pointing out as well. Decisions that seem easy because they're small, but are repeated many times may add up to far more important than the difficult, rare ones.

I came up with this whole thing some years ago and dubbed it the Universal Theory of Decisions' which, stated in one line, is: A decision is either easy or it doesn't matter'.

There's a corollary, though, which I've never managed to get as succinct as the first bit: If the decision isn't easy and does (seem to) matter, then you're thinking about the wrong decision. This covers the situations like getting stuck deciding which university to go to. The real decision is usually something like 'do I have enough information to make this decision?', to which the answer is No, so you just get on and get more information: no agonising required.

Someone pointed out recently that this Universal Theory of Decisions is closely related to Susan Blackmore's 'no free-will' approach outlined in The Meme Machine. Whether it is or not, I've found that the application frees up my time and mental energy to get on with things that are more productive. I do occasionally need to be reminded that I'm stressing over a decision that doesn't matter, though. But then I guess that means I'm still human.

I disagree. There's two ways choices can be hard. The difference is in the expected disutility of the negation. Low disutility: it's difficult because you want them both about equally. Flip a coin. High disutility: you desperately don't want to abandon either.

In that second case, it's worth trying to bisect the dilemma. "Might it not be possible to be a multi-class scientist/florist, even if it slows me gaining levels?"

Douglas Knight:

It's more amusing if you get the outside input from other people. (but it's biased)

Not at all - just internally number the choices, and ask a friend to choose 1, 2, or 3. Then, again, react to the result emotionally and act on your reaction. My girlfriend and I do this all the time.

I wouldn't trust random numbers from people, though. Making random numbers is nigh impossible for the human brain.

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