Summary: many of us might occasionally find ourselves in situations where we’re considering taking action A, but decide against it because some option B seems superior. This is a good way to go only if B is an actual alternative (we’re actually going to do it), and not a fake alternative (it prevents us from doing A, but we’re not actually going to follow through on B). It can be worth taking suboptimal actions if the real alternative would be to take no action at all.

Example 1: Getting a Gym Membership

Imagine the following thought process:

  • I want to get in shape
  • Going to the gym is a proven option for achieving that (let’s call this option A)
  • I could however also work out at home (let’s call this option B)
  • In some sense option B seems preferable, because it allows me to save ~$50 each month
  • I thus decide to choose option B

What happens in practice? I work out at home a few times, but the habit fades after two weeks for a number of reasons (it’s just too easy to forget about it, there’s always other things to do while I’m at home, I don’t get excited about it because I don’t have much equipment and push-ups get old quickly, I don’t have a sense of real progress, etc.).

At this point I might still be inclined to not sign up for a gym membership, because I still feel like I could just work out at home.

Of course there’s more aspects to the decision than merely the price, even if to some people this may be the most salient feature. Possibly the most important other aspect is: what’s the likelihood of me actually achieving my goal? And for many people, this aspect may shift the odds in favor of a gym membership.

While for some people the home workout option obviously can work out (e.g. those with a lot of self discipline, who live in a suitable flat), for many people it’s a kind of fake alternative: it seems superior to the gym membership, but comes at the price of actually getting what you want.

This may be what these situations feel like from the inside:

But looking more closely, a more complete picture may look like this:

So in practice, while option B seems better than option A, it may also turn out that one’s actual behavior will reveal a preference for doing nothing over option B. So at first glance this looks like a non-transitive set of preferences - but the paradox can be resolved once we realize that the “better than” relations mean very different things in the three different places. Particularly they are simplifications of a multi-dimensional problem: individual options (including doing nothing) may be better in some ways and worse in other ways than the others, and collapsing this situation to a single “better than” assessment necessarily omits a lot of nuance. What we end up with is a situation in which option B seems superior to option A in some salient way, but if we look at the actual, real world and what is going to happen, it may turn out that “doing nothing” will be consistently preferred to option B, making it effectively worse than option A.

Example 2: Hosting an Event

I once found myself in the situation that I was collaborating with another person to host a Lightning Talk like event for a certain community. We had done it a few times in the past, using Zoom, and it was very easy to set up and run, and seemed quite valuable. 

Then at one point we decided to make the event cooler: let’s do it in-person and order Pizza. This would involve getting a venue and some funding, but it seemed worth it, since this would just make for a much more memorable event where people make deeper connections.

You can probably guess by now what actually happened: we never ran the event. The effort that would have had to go into things was just large enough to deter us from doing it at all. Notably this did not mean that we just ran another Zoom event instead - for us, “run Pizza event” seemed better than “run Zoom event”, but in any given moment “do nothing” seemed better than “actually run Pizza event”. So we were stuck in this situation, ultimately for almost a year.

Example 3: Publishing a Post

A lot of people have ideas for interesting posts to publish in a forum such as lesswrong. Maybe they already have an advanced draft. But it doesn’t yet seem good enough to actually be published - so the person might put this off indefinitely, because “improve the post until I’m happy with it” seems like a superior alternative to publishing immediately.

Again, if the person has a concrete plan for making such improvements and is sufficiently confident that they’ll actually do that and publish the post in time, then option B may actually be superior. But in a lot of cases people will just basically do nothing and leave their draft untouched for months. Publishing the post in its imperfect state may then actually be the better alternative.

Another example that goes in a similar direction is what one Youtube channel calls the Toolbox Fallacy: the failure of enthusiasts to actually get started pursuing some dream of theirs (such as filming, or writing), because they feel like it doesn't make sense until they have better tools at their disposal.

Possible Causes and Mitigations

I believe there’s a number of possible causes for such situations, including but not limited to the following:

  • The “option B > option A” assessment is incomplete, and some dimensions of the two options have been ignored. A common such dimension may be the probability of actually following through on the option once it has been chosen.
  • Relatedly, “option B > option A” may hinge on the hidden implication of having to change one’s habits or character. If option B requires you to e.g. “just have more willpower” or behave consistently in a way that never worked out before, but option A does not, it is a good indicator that option B may be a fake alternative.
  • In some cases option B may really be superior to option A in most ways, but would have to happen in the future, whereas option A could be acted on today. In this case option B may be better only as long as you don’t apply discounting. But discounting is often sensible, and not doing so may in this case just be a form of procrastination.

On the mitigation side, here are three possible strategies:

  • Take the outside view, and e.g. think about how your best friend would rate the odds of you achieving your goal if you were to pursue your two options, and if the alternative one actually makes the desired outcome more likely to occur. 
  • List out the pros and cons of all options explicitly to ensure your comparison of options is sound.
  • Try to expand your action space by coming up with additional options other than A and B, that may be even better overall.


I find myself in such situations frequently, and found it useful to have this simple mental model at hand. Finding myself thinking "yeah but I could just do X instead" is always suspicious, and leads me to think very carefully about whether X is actually a better alternative than what I would otherwise do, all things considered.

In a way the lesson is very simple: when you consider taking some valuable action A, but decide against it due to some alternative option B, think again if that alternative is actually better. If it’s just a hypothetical that won’t happen anytime soon, or in some other way is unlikely to work out, maybe you’re better off sticking to your original plan.


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10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:51 PM

Another way of saying this is Don't let perfect be the enemy of good, which Montesquieu wrote in 1726.

I think it does relate to examples 2 and 3, although I would still differentiate between perfectionism in the sense that you actually keep working on something for a long time to reach perfection on the one hand, and doing nothing because a hypothetical alternative deters you from some immediate action on the other hand. The latter is more what I was going for here.

Good reminder.  Note that in many cases, NEITHER option is a guarantee.  Gym memberships are famously underused, and it's not clear whether "pay for a gym membership" actually implies working out.  This example is a case of "NOTICE the risks of fake alternatives, which could be either or both, and put in action plans to reconsider on X date".

In fact, for all of them, the question of "when and how to evaluate the chosen action" resolves the uncertainty.  Plans of this kind should actually be thought of as experiment design.

Good point, agreed. If "pay for a gym membership" turns out to be "do nothing and pay $50 a month for it", then it's certainly worse than "do nothing at home".

Would you consider two-boxing a fake alternative? Something that would give you more utility but is actually not possible or at least very unlikely?

I like this comparison to two-boxing in the gym membership example. We can maybe imagine that for some people successfully working out at home is two-boxing with Omega getting it wrong (IE unlikely), gym is one-boxing and doing no working out at all is two-boxing with Omega getting it right. Omega in this case is the algorithm "You don't have the self drive to consistently work out without the nudge a gym membership gives you." So your two-boxing tactic makes sense insofar as you think this Omega-algorithm is wrong. (along with caveats like "If I get the membership I will actually use it").

Before applying this, remember sometimes option A isn't a real alternative either. 

"I work out at the gym a few times, but the habit fades after two weeks for a number of reasons"

Gym business models are built around the large number of people that buy membership and don't turn up after January. 

  • I want to get in shape
  • we decided to make the event cooler
  • it doesn’t yet seem good enough

Notice that all of these goals are either socially focused, or at least sufficiently abstract as to allow for that interpretation. And this is almost certainly where the trouble begins.

For example, if the desire to "get in shape" is fundamentally about signaling (far thinking), rather than specific, concrete benefits we'll get from it (near thinking), then we'll be primed to think about the options in far-mode signaling terms.

And in signaling terms, "work out at home" wins if it means we're being "smart" or "frugal" as well as virtuously intending to "get in shape". So the apparently-irrational decision is actually a rational decision when our real motivation in the moment is to make ourselves feel virtuous right away. The "decision" to work out at home requires zero actual action, so it's the fastest way to feel virtuous -- which was our brain's primary intention all along!

(Notice, too, how in the other examples, the option chosen is the one that allows the most short-term virtuous feeling.)

Anyway, in order for the near-mode question of "will I actually do it" come into play, one has to be thinking in oncrete construal about the personal specifics of the goal, and what concrete benefits one will obtain that one actually cares about in near mode.

So e.g. "being healthier" is meaningless, but "having more energy" or "able to play tennis" or something else of that sort would work better. (Assuming one legitimately wants energy or to be able to play tennis, and those aren't just signifiers for another kind of social signaling!)

Anyway, as a general rule, the more abstract the original goal (in the sense of not being grounded by some specifiable + desirable future state of reality), the more likely our plans are to be hijacked by signaling considerations and largely divorced from the practicalities.

The rule of thumb I use with clients is the "mmm test" - if you can't picture it and feel good about it in the same way you'd feel good about a meal or sex or coming in from the cold (or heat) or plunking down in a comfy chair after hard work, the goal is one or more of:

  • too abstract,
  • focused on something you're only "supposed to" want (rather than what you actually want),
  • something you thnk will get you what you actually want,
  • a socially-acceptable cover for what you want,
  • the best you think you can get, etc. etc.

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