Loneliness and the paradox of choice

by AllAmericanBreakfast5 min read9th Sep 20204 comments


World OptimizationPractical

Loneliness is a problem of decision-making. Being around other people, whether in a social or work setting, comes with many supports to our decision-making process. In an idealized process of decision-making, each time the question "What's next?" pops up, we imagine a menu of options. We choose one of them, and then we go through a psychological process of committing to it. This leads to activity, and both within that activity and after it, we repeat this algorithm many more times.

Think of all the ways that the presence of other people can support this process. Just being around others comes with cultural expectations about the options we choose from in response to that constant question, "What's next?" Settings where two or more people are gathered also typically have some implicit or explicit structure around how options will be chosen. And once an option is chosen, the simple fact that each individual knows that it has been registered as the group's choice acts as a commitment device.

By contrast, when an individual is on their own, that simple fact does not apply. There is no group to have registered a collective choice. Have you ever had a week entirely to yourself, perhaps when you were single, and had the experience of making choices about what to do, only to spend a lot of time revisiting that choice? Considering other options even after you've selected one? Asking whether you picked the highest-priority option, even though in retrospect it didn't really matter very much which you chose?

Even more difficult for the individual is the fact that because there is no second person present, you are unable to take their preferences into consideration as you invent and weigh the options for what to do. If you do not have a strong sense of your own preferences and needs, or have some other binding constraint such as a high-pressure work schedule, then this might pose a real problem. The options might all feel a bit arbitrary. Witnessing yourself as a person who does arbitrary activities simply to fill the time may not be a pleasant reflection to see in the mirror.

Finally, the whole process of making decisions, or a particular step in it, can feel fraught. Rather than appearing to the mind as a matter of fact process, a puzzle to solve with clear steps, sometimes the mind simply flails. Ever had a dream where you had to play in a major league sports match for a game where you'd never played before, didn't know the rules, but still had to pretend like you knew what you were doing? It's like that, but the game is loneliness.

We often talk about loneliness as if the cause of that feeling was a simple absence of the physical presence, attention, or care from or for another person. This seems compelling. We imagine times when we didn't feel lonely, and indeed, those memories tend to involve relating with another person with whom we had a strong, trusting bond. 

However, if this were the case, then it should be impossible to be content while we are alone. Clearly, it is not. Aloneness can produce loneliness, or it can produce solitude, a word used to indicate a pleasant or meaningful relationship with being by oneself. Togetherness can be a cure for the disease of loneliness, but aloneness is not guaranteed to cause it. In fact, togetherness, even with a caring, trusted person, can at times make us feel a strong desire to be by ourselves. Perhaps the population of many industrialized nations needs, on average, more togetherness, but that is a rough answer for a problem with many individual nuances.

What if it's true that the problems of aloneness and also of togetherness were both caused by problems of decision-making?

If that were true, then this would suggest an explicit, step-by-step process for dealing with that discomfort. It would suggest a form of deliberate practice that might help people navigate the many challenges of their daily lives. Practice would involve translating one's own or another person's feelings of distress into the question, "What's next?", determining a menu of appropriate options for various contexts, practicing habits, heuristics, and formal methods for making choices, and practicing commitment devices in order to move on into action.

This framework suggests also how failure modes could be analyzed. Distress with a murky, implicit process is one, as mentioned. Another might be an unrehearsed menu of options for a given context, with many inappropriate or unappealing choices "popping up" due to lack of familiarity, complexity, or other reasons. A third might be a lack of good methods for choosing from among the options. A fourth might be a failure to commit, or trying to commit to too many options. And a fifth might be a process that does not proceed in order, but jumps around, or where the decision-maker doesn't start at the beginning, but instead tries to make a choice without having thought of any options, or tries to commit without having made a decision.

If a shift from loneliness to solitude comes from practice in making decisions, it helps us explain why some of the cures for loneliness might work. Creativity is an oft-recommended cure for loneliness. Of course, creativity is fundamentally about committing to a project and making choices within it.

Another cure is communion with nature, observation of society, taking in art, or meditation. To move around or commit to stillness within an environment and observe and interpret it closely is another project that encompasses a feedback loop of decision-making; or alternative, it can be the dissolution of any compulsion to make decisions. In some forms of meditation, you have already made a decision: to make no decisions. And you are simply waiting for your mind to psychologically register that commitment.

The third and probably most common solution people find to the problem of loneliness is to avoid being at a loss for how to make decisions. They might do this by distracting themselves with devices and habits that make decisions for them. They might do this by submitting to the decisions of another person, group, psychological obsession, or ideological system. Or they might build a life around a set of obligations where their own role and duties are clearly established, so that they are never at a loss for what needs to be done, and always know how they will contribute to that goal.

This is the paradox of modern life. By expanding the range of options, we have vastly increased the potential for optimization. However, the extraordinary number of options with which we are presented forces us to be constantly making choices. Many people have underestimated to an extraordinary degree the costs associated with making choices. Compounding this problem exponentially is that making a successful choice often depends on knowing what other people will do, on the predictability of the world. As choices expand, predictability often decreases, meaning that it becomes harder and harder to commit to anything.

Worst of all, in highly competitive arenas, the range of ways to fail to make the optimal choice has expanded, while there remains just one narrow range of optimal behavior. There are more ways to miss the mark than ever before. This leads to a barrier to entry in these fields. Somebody has solved the problem and has the resources to keep optimizing further, but we, as outsiders, do not. This means we are left with a different problem, which is choosing which arenas to enter. This problem is equally hard.

These hard problems ultimately lead many individuals and groups to optimize for making decisions as easily as possible. A business that's able to give its workers a sense of meaning and purpose can treat that as a benefit with a real dollar value. An educational program that can give its participants the experience of a clear decision-making process might attract students even though it provides minimal long-term value. Determining the long-term value of a specific degree, or of a particular job, is after all a hard problem with a complex decision-making process.

If an immediately clear decision-making process has the high dollar value that I'm asserting, it should provide tremendous explanatory power for the ways that observable economic behavior doesn't seem to line up with "rational self-interest."

What if, for example, it's about as easy to make decisions from moment to moment when you're poor as when you're rich? If that were true, and if easy decision-making is of paramount importance to everyone, then we should expect that people simply don't put as much effort into making more money as we might expect them to. If the pursuit of wealth generates as many decision-making problems as the acquisition of money resolves, then it's roughly a wash.

This, then, is my grand theory of human problems. It is the paradox of choice.

  • More choices give better optimums, which is very good.
  • More choices also expand the range of sub-optimal outcomes, which in highly competitive arenas discourages entry.
  • Individual people often don't understand clearly that most of their distress comes from an inchoate, unpracticed, burdensome, misguided decision-making process.
  • People relentlessly avoid having to deal with lack of resolution and making decisions for themselves, which is extremely costly in the long run on other values that they ostensibly care about a great deal.
  • Many problems on an individual and group level, from psychological distress, to failed marriages, to lack of entrepreneurship, to institutional failure, to cultural breakdown, have to do with failures of decision-making. There are such an enormous number of possibilities for how this could play out that it is probably much more helpful to do a careful analysis of each individual case to offer correctives.
  • Vastly more personal investment in exploring on an intimate level how one makes decisions, how decision-making issues affect one's personal well-being and psychological adjustment, and deliberate practice in personal decision making could have enormous benefits in one's own life.
  • Developing skills and tools to help others make decisions more easily is at least as important as helping others make better decisions.