The Reckoner Meets the New York Times Magazine
The Reckoner chugs like a freight train – I’m knee deep in Django and Python right now, coding up the interface and its interaction with the Reckoner API. Still on schedule – November 30th.
On the topic of decisions, the New York Times Magazine recently wrote 4800 words on my favorite topic – decision-making, and why we have problems with it. The full text is available here and is good enough to merit a full read, but the article can be boiled down into the following basic points:
Decision-making power is finite. You can use up your decision-making capability over the course of the day, and the resulting mental fatigue makes you more likely to dodge future decisions or make bad ones.
- The biological basis of this is probably blood sugar. Low blood sugar means a tired brain that can’t make decisions.
Intuitively, this makes sense, which is why I originally approached this article with a banquet dinner of skepticism. People generally love when science backs our collective intuition – it makes us feel more secure in our understanding of the world, since science is merely affirming the knowledge we’ve derived on our own. People hold fast to conventional wisdom – when science undercuts it, it undercuts us. It means real truth only belongs to the scientists, who are not terribly distinct from wizards for those on the outside of the tower (to bastardize an Arthur C Clarke quote). And nobody likes a wizard, or wants to listen to one.
But no, the article does a surprisingly good job of avoiding the Malcom Gladwell school of Science By Intuitive Assertion. There’s some legitimate and well-conducted research that suggests that this is really true – that our brains only have a limited amount of decision making mojo, and that when it’s gone, the only way back is through judicious oral deployment of Snickers bars.
One of the more interesting anecdotes in the article deals with buying a car. Buying a car generally involves a tremendous number of clear, sequentially delivered decisions – do I want the base model or the sport model? Better wheels? Keyless entry? AM radio or splurge on the AM/FM variant? What the article discovered is that the ordering of these decisions is important. Front-load with trivial things – gearshift knobs and seat warmers – and the mind will exhaust itself with all of the permutations so that when it gets to the important decisions – four-banger or V6 – it’s extremely suggestible and liable to spend more money.
So what does this mean for The Reckoner? Doesn’t this make The Reckoner irresponsible – a way for people to exhaust their decision-making power on other people’s problems so they can then – mentally exhausted – blow all their money on lottery tickets, extended warranties, and Mike Tyson-style facial tattoos?
No. One of the themes of the article is agony. We burn the most mental energy in agonizing over tough decisions, pushing against the hinges of our own constrained perspectives and thought processes. We agonize over just about anything regardless of how trivial, and that leaves us without the energy when we need it.
The Reckoner is designed to relieve agony. People post questions that they’re agonizing over to a crowd that individually will not agonize over the question. Collectively, through the diversity of perspective and the wisdom of the crowds, these individual non-agonized viewpoints aggregate into a good decision that can relieve the agony of the poster. Thus, the net sum of mental energy is conserved. And entertainment is provided. And decisions are delivered. And a good time is had by all.
Also, you can consume as many Snickers as you like in front of The Reckoner. Go ahead. I won’t care. Snickers are delicious, and I don’t care who knows it.