A New Challenge for Buridan’s Ass

I think if it weren’t for Dr. Ariely’s blog, I’d hardly ever do my own blogging; therefore, I am grateful for his blog, but disappointed in my own lack of creativity. Anyway, this post is inspired by his latest post.

Even though we are assuming the two coffees differ in value, this situation reminds me of Buridan’s ass. Which coffee shop does an infinitely wise person (or donkey) choose? It’s a dilemma, except in this case, it arises from the intractability of figuring out which option will result in the greatest utility.

Even figuring out how much time to spend deciding is a hard problem. In fact, spending too much time deciding is exactly why it is supposed that Buradin’s ass might paradoxically die of starvation. I know I often get caught in this kind of trap where I spend an inordinate amount of time deciding, and it often turns out not be worth the extra consideration. Some people call this “analysis paralysis”. This can even have serious consequences on one’s love life:

http://xkcd.com/761/

The real problem though, is assuming that things have definite value:

http://xkcd.com/309/

Even if you had the chance to try both coffees, and compare how satisfying they are, many of us would still fail to quantify the additional happiness that the specialty coffee creates compared to Dunkin’ Donuts (except those who have no appreciation for specialty coffees, who won’t find this difficult at all). If the subjective difference can’t be quantified, we can’t even begin to ask the question, “Is that difference worth the additional money?”.

Heuristics aren’t just shortcuts for the lazy. They’re the only practical way to avoid the fate of Buradin’s ass i.e. starvation.

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