Friday, February 29, 2008

What Price to Avoid Loss?

Earlier this week the New York Times ran a very interesting article about the psychology of choices, namely our reluctance to give up choices in spite of our own best interests.

The article profiles the collaboration of behavioral economics professors Dan Ariely and Jiwoong Shin, of MIT and Yale respectively. Ariely has been getting buzz for the book he's written about his research, titled Predictably Irrational.

Using computer games that involve opening doors for cash rewards under the constraint of limited turns, the two have demonstrated that people will go to great lengths to avoid losing an option (a door, in this case).
"Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss, " Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious — wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.

"We may work more hours at our jobs," Dr. Ariely writes in his book, "without realizing that the childhood of our sons and daughters is slipping away. Sometimes these doors close too slowly for us to see them vanishing."

This reminded me of Schnarch's writings on two-choice dilemmas, anxiety-provoiking situations that involve mutually exclusive choices. His focus was primarily how they affect committed relationships, and it's interesting to note how the NYT article cites marriage as one way we resolve a dilemma earlier in life.

The article is interesting because it underscores the universality of such dilemmas and the lengths that we go to avoid the loss that choice brings. In linking to this article from his blog, University of Tennessee Knoxville law professor Glenn Reynolds cited a short article he wrote for the Yale Law Report, published in 1990. As I was reading these articles and looked back on my experiences from all of this, I began to remember specific moments from the agonizingly long job search last year.

Early on in the search, I had a lot of misgivings about whether my skills were marketable. Once I started to get interest from recruiters and potential employers, I started to feel overwhelmed by the number of interviewing opportunities, at times feeling frustrated that I didn't have enough days to do traveling interviews.

In the back of my mind, I had developed some additional beliefs. First was that in the past, I had settled for less both in my professional pursuits and my marriage, in essence forfeiting choices that would bring about major change. The second belief was that I was running out of time, verging on being too old to jump-start my career.

By July, when my wife threw down the separation gauntlet and my lead with the Online Payment Subsidiary of the Big Online Auction Company crumbled, I had this fear that if I did find something, especially local to the area, I would be somehow settling for less again.

By the time December rolled around, I was being pulled in three directions -- hold out for a resurrected offer from Susie Student Loan, hope that Company Line would make a decision, or make a run for Bonded and Insured. Although I was excited about getting the offer from Company Line, I felt a little bit of let-down that I had finally closed the door on the distant opportunities.

Two months into my new job, I am a much happier person professionally. There are stresses, and I make mistakes as I learn. The difference is that the day-to-day setbacks are just minor detours in a larger trip.

My work is producing usable material, and people are benefiting from it. A new developer hired on this week, and as I serve as his mentor, I begin to realize just how much I have learned in this short time. I am building friendships at work, and slowly developing my own social life.

The sense of loss from roads not taken no longer sits at the forefront of my mind, and that is a Good Thing indeed!
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