Wednesday, February 01, 2006

the problem of choice

"Is that a discman?...that's different."

So, I don't own an i-pod, and its not because I ran out to get the Sony MP3 player. In fact, I didn't even know that Sony had a new MP3 player. It's not because I think Apple is the devil, or think I am some kind of purist (though I do have a turntable with pre AND post amp). I am simply paralyzed by risk aversion and the problem of choice. I'll explain...

I'll be finishing up the second year of my MBA in May. For those unfamiliar with MBA curricula, you usually spend your first year taking a set of core classes (so you don't go and embarrass your school by you graduating and not knowing something "fundamental"), and then get to pick your electives your second year. My favorite this term is a class called "Decision Making" which centers on applying insights gathered from psychology, anthropology and sociology to debunk classic economics theory. One of the most useful lessons I've learned from my professor, Uri, is the problem of choice - hear me out, I promise this is cool.

So classic economics preaches that the more choices we have, the more informed we will be, the happier we will be because we'll be able to find exactly what we want. In practice, Uri and his coursepack explain to me, that each additional choice we have is a trade off we have to contemplate, or what economists call an "opportunity cost."

So experiments have shown that if you stock one store shelf with six types of jam, and another with thirty six (including the six from the first shelf), you will sell dramatically more off the first shelf. The shelf with more variety just scares people away because they don't want to choose. A fascinating essay by a professor at Princeton uses this phenomenon to explain the panic suffered by most career-agnostic liberal arts grads pondering what they should do with their lives. The more choices we have, the more we stand to lose by choosing at all and picking the wrong one.

And this is why I don't have an I-Pod. Every time I am about to get one, I hear that "the mini is coming out soon," then there will be colors, or the mini sucks cause the nano will be better, or YOU CAN EVEN WATCH TV on your I-pod if you get the right one, but the TV on the I-Pod right now isn't that great but in a few months they might have a better one. So I do nothing!

I want to have my whole CD collection in the palm of my hand, and it'd be pretty cool to download last night's 24 and watch it on the bus to school tomorrow. In the meantime, I watch in envy as people I go to school with (most of whom think that Romanian Numa Numa song is a classic and XTC is a drug) enjoy the elegant design, symphonic sound, and perfectly designed controls of Apple's pocket sized wonder.

But then, if I had an I-Pod, and I uploaded all my CD's onto it, I'd have to make a choice. How would I pick what to listen to from 10000 songs anyway? If Uri is right, I might be happier with my discman anyway.


At 11:38 AM, Blogger Mugshot said...

That's a fantastic point about too much choice on the iPod. I had a 40GB model that was supposed to hold about 10,000 songs. I put my entire collection of MP3s on it and could never decide what to listen to — or would feel guilty about leaving certain artists unplayed for months. I recently got the Nano, and am very selective about what I have on it at a particular time. And since there are only 500 songs on it at a time, what's on it defines what kind of listening state I'm in for a particular week or two and forces me to stick with certain things from my library until I've listened them out entirely, several times. (Loaded on right now are Camper Van Beethoven, the Homosexuals, the Minutemen, some Pavement, XTC, a few other things, and that's all. So it's not even conceivable to me that I would throw on, say, Bjork anytime soon, even if Post is incredible. And I don't feel bad about that anymore).


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