What do you do when you can’t decide which of two or more alternatives you prefer? The question assumes you have all the information you need to judge your subjective utility from each alternative, but that two or more of them are equally satisfactory to you. The technical term for this is “indifference,” and its meaning is different than the common usage.
Dictionary definitions for indifference give meanings like “of not particular interest or concern,” and “marked by no special liking or dislike for something.” But the economic concept of indifference can apply equally well to two or more alternatives which are of particular interest and for which you do have a special liking (or dislike). Choosing between a Smithwick’s Irish Ale and a Boddington’s Pub Ale, for example–both are of particular interest to me because I particularly like each of them. Conversely, if I had to choose between watching an Adam Sandler comedy or a Chevy Chase one, I would again be indifferent because I have a special dislike for each one.
Making decisions is easy when we can rank order the alternative; then the decision rule is “take the highest ranked” (or more simply, “take the best”). But when we are indifferent we give two or more items the same ranking (i.e., they tie), so how do we decide then?
On the one hand, indifference is good because you’ll be satisfied with your outcome whatever you choose, no less than if you had taken the best. On the other hand, indifference is bad when you can’t find an appropriate decision rule for choosing between equally good alternatives.
This long-winded explanation was spurred by my daughter’s problem with indifference at the theater snack bar yesterday. With a crowd building up behind us, she found herself indifferent between her options and lacking a decision rule. In plain English, she couldn’t make up her mind. The choice certain was of particular interest and concern because her sisters were also getting snacks and she desperately wanted a snack, too. She was indifferent between types of snacks, but had a clear rank ordering of “snack -> no snack.”
Being tired and headachy, my first attempt to help her was less than helpful. Amazingly, “There are a lot of people waiting on us, so just choose one or you get nothing” is not a helpful decision rule to an indifferent 9 year old. But I had more success with my second attempt, “Name one thing you like.” M&Ms it was, and satisfying they were.
This event reminded me of a time I was blocked in a gas station snack aisle by someone who couldn’t decide between Doritos Blazin’ Buffalo and Ranch chips and Doritos Salsa Verde chips. I pointed to the Salsa Verde chips and said, “Take those.” I wasn’t thinking about decision rules; I just wanted the guy to decide so I could get through the aisle. He looked up in surprise and asked, “Are they good?” “I don’t know,” I said, “But if you haven’t tried either one, then one’s as good a pick as the other.” He happily agreed, grabbed a bag, and headed for the counter. And then I began thinking about decision rules….
The problem for both that guy and my daughter was the fear that they wouldn’t get the best, that they’d end up disappointed. But being indifferent, they really didn’t need to worry about that outcome. Granted, the man might have felt disappointed if he hated the Salsa Verde Doritos, but he wouldn’t be in a position to know that he wouldn’t have disliked the Blazin’ Buffalo and Ranch just as much. (He could have played it safe and gone for the Nacho Cheese Doritos, but apparently his rank order that day was “try something new -> same old thing.”) My daughter was in a much better position–she was going to enjoy whatever she got, so disappointment could only be an irrational response, buyer’s remorse. My daughter, or course, is perfectly rational–as demonstrated by her inability to choose when indifferent–so that wasn’t a concern.
I had trouble making decisions when indifferent until that fateful day in the gas station. But that funny little moment taught me two important things: 1) Indifference means it doesn’t matter* what I choose, so I can stop stressing over the fear of being disappointed; 2) All I need then is some kind of decision rule–any rule that doesn’t result in perverse outcomes will do. Interfering strangers rarely volunteer a decision rule, but I have on occasion asked another shopper, “which one do you like,” and gone with their response (I would, of course, do just as well going with the opposite of their response, and might get additional utility out of watching their confused expressions). Flipping a coin works just as well, when you have only two options, but sometimes there are three or more (damn Frito Lay for making so many tasty Dorito varieties!), and sometimes I drop the coin and it rolls under the display case.
I’ve found that two decision rules work very well for me in the case of indifference. “Choose the one you thought of first” and “grab the nearest.” The first one sounds psychological, as though maybe the one I chose first is really most preferred, but it’s really not. It’s just a tie-breaker. “Grab the nearest” has the advantage of being ergonomically efficient.*
Yes, I am overthinking this. It’s an occupational hazard, you know. But it’s good that I did, because I actually used to worry about whether I should have gotten the 4 cheese pizza instead of the Pepperoni and Sausage one, and my enjoyment would suffer from fear that I maybe could have done better. And of course I spent an inordinate amount of time standing in front of the pizza case (or in the video store) expending great mental energy in making a decision that didn’t actually matter. And I see other people doing this on occasion, so I know my daughter and I are not the only ones.
I’ve experienced great satisfaction in overcoming indifference. Hopefully you never let it bother you. But if you have, choose a functional decision rule and take heart in knowing you can’t actually go wrong.
* Which is, I’m glad to say, one of the dictionary definitions.
* In The Compleat Strategyst, an example is given, iirc, of watching an ant crawl across a floor, while keeping an eye on your watch. If the ant crosses the line before the second hand reaches the number 6, take the first option; if it crosses the line after the second hand passes 6, take the second option. The weirdness of the rule is intentional, to emphasize that how you choose in cases of indifference (or, as in the book, when your odds are 50-50, which is much the same thing) doesn’t matter.