Rules > Defaults > Choices

By replacing choices with good defaults and rules, we can limit our inclination to make bad decisions.

Good choices are hard to make consistently. 

For a start, they’re taxing on our brain, and our brains are expensive to run. Our brains use roughly 20% of our calories despite being only 2% of our body mass.

Making choices is also time consuming and takes up cognitive power we could use to get creative elsewhere. We also just make lousy choices. We choose things in the moment, which we later regret.

This is why defaults work so well, they make the lazy option, a good choice.

Let’s consider a simplistic scenario in which we would like eat less chocolate at work.

A good default in this case would be to always have an apple on our desk, in case we get peckish. Always having apples available as a snack, doesn’t stop us from eating chocolate, but we have to avoid or ignore the apple to do so.

The lazy option, becomes to eat the apple, which (in this case) we’ve decided is a better default option than chocolate.

Having good defaults allow us to make better choices, but only when we construct the circumstances. Putting an apple on our desk doesn’t help us when someone comes by and offers us chocolate.

One way to take this even further is to make the good choice, not just the default, but a rule. Remove the choice entirely.

This means moving from always making an apple available, to making a rule about only eating apples as a snack.

This might feel a little draconian, but in an area where we struggle with choices, it can really help to take the bad options off the table. Whenever we get hungry, the rule is “we only snack on apples at work”.

Note: making rules which eliminate choices can be constructive within a personal sphere, but isn’t a great option for when designing for architectures for other people. See dictatorship.

If someone offers chocolate, we don’t have to choose not to eat it because we can defer to the rule.

Sometimes it’s easier to be something as a rule, than to constantly have to choose. It’s easier just to be a vegetarian, than to always have to choose not to eat meat.

This small change can have a big impact, because simply changing the language we use from “we choose not to do that now” (a choice), to “we don’t do that” (a rule) eases the load on our brain which can have a huge impact on our behaviour.

For more on good defaults and rules:

Nudging: A Very Short Guide – Cass Sunstein.

A conversation with Dan Ariely.


Dogma or Doom: The trouble with plans

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth

Mike Tyson

Plans are powerful, but only when we acknowledge that they are like all of us: flawed, works in progress.


The problems come when we assume a plan is perfect; when a plan becomes dogma.

When we plan, we’re imagining a set of circumstances in which we will operate. Unfortunately those circumstances are often a fiction.

We create plans to help us deal with complex situations, but we just aren’t very good at anticipating or predicting complexity.

So what happens we come to execute the plan and the actual circumstances of the world, don’t match those under which the plan was constructed?

Do we follow the dogma?

Do we follow the circumstances?

As painful as it may be to update the plan because of the costs involved (time to create, test, redistribute & re-communicate), these are the costs of acknowledging the reality: the plan is always flawed, it’s always a work in progress.

These are the costs we pay to avoid following dogma to our doom, or sacrificing the advantages of planning in the first place.

Attachment and suffering

We’re very sensitive to negative stimulus. Pain is a great teacher, precisely because we’re wired to avoid a loss more strongly than we are to pursue a gain.
 
It’s a hangover from our evolutionary development when the preservation of resources was more closely correlated with our survival.
 
If we lost our food, we starved to death.
 
(it’s amazing how everything becomes simpler when we look at through the lens of staving or not)
 
But the only reason this wiring works, is that we have an enormous capacity attach ourselves to whatever we encounter. Food, people, money, possessions & ideas.
 
Once a meal is put in front of us, it becomes our meal.
 
Once we exchange our money” for that car, it becomes our car.
 
In many ways this attachment underpins a large part of how we operate as both individuals and society within a commercial environment.
 
And perhaps it’s because this attachment forms a key part of our personal “operating system” that we don’t spot when it starts to become very unhelpful.
 
We become attached to things we don’t own, to outcomes outside of our control, to circumstances which are bound to change.
 
And when our attachment is violated, we suffer.
We become frustrated when we don’t get what we want.
We become angry when we break something precious to us.
We become sad and despondent when a pleasant situation begins to sour.
The Buddhists are acutely aware of the power of attachment and the role that it plays in our suffering.
 
It’s why they meditate on impermanence and change. They understand that loosening the grip that attachment has on their thoughts and behaviour, undermines its ability to create suffering.
 
Less attachment = less suffering.
 
And since we’re able to take control of our attachment, we’re largely responsive for the extend to which we experience suffering.
 
And while it’s beyond the scope of this post to try and cram 2500 thousand years of contemplative tradition into 350 words, there is a simple place to start – and that’s to look.
 
We can look for attachment in our everyday life and be mindful of the influence it has on our thoughts and behaviour. We can ask whether or not the attachment help our lives, and we can try to be more skilful with our actions.
 
We can try to be less attached and as a result, less prone to suffering.

When intuitions break down

We’re not very good at updating our intuitions about the world.

Whether it’s due to pride, cognitive dissonance or sheer bloody-mindedness, we cling to ideas, notions and wishes which are… well… bullshit.

Changing our minds is expensive – both cognitively and reputationally. Not only do we have to figure out what we actually believe, but we have to deal with the fact that we might have been wrong about something for a long time. And that last part can be incredibly painful.

Whilst we might understand and accept that our views have to change if the situation becomes radically different, we don’t often appreciate how our intuitions and assumptions about the world break down completely at scales and perspectives which are different from our own.

The cosmologist Max Tegmark gives some examples from physics

“At high speeds, Einstein realized that time slows down…

…At low temperatures, liquid helium can flow upward.

…At high temperatures, colliding particles change identity…

…if you intuitively understand all aspects of black holes [then you] should immediately put down this book and publish your findings before someone scoops you on the Nobel Prize for quantum gravity”

As we move away from our normal speed, size and temperature, what we know about the world comes apart and becomes untrue. In fact, in some cases, the opposite becomes true.

This shows us that the truths we cling to are often tied to parameters which are not part of our intuition. And when the parameters change, our intuitions will be out of step with reality.

Our truths depend on perspective, so we should not be surprised when those with different perspectives, hold different truths, intuitions and assumptions about the world.

When we know this we can begin to ask of others:

what parameters (some of which might be invisible to me) are their intuitions relying on?

And of ourselves:

what happens to our own intuitions if we adjust those same parameters?

At what point do our own intuitions and truths completely break down?

By doing this we can get a better understanding of others and why they believe what they do.

We also recognise that the cut and dried world is actually messier than it might seem. Our assumptions might keep us clean and dry, but if we want to know what’s really going on, we need to roll up our sleeves and be prepared to get our intuitions dirty.

Sunlight is a great disinfectant

Our natural tendency when things go wrong is to bury them under a rock somewhere and hope that nobody finds out.

Sometimes nobody does, but under these hidden conditions, problems often fester and rot. They might not always get worse, but they will almost never get better.

Exposure to light, compassionate inspection and curiosity can help stop the rot from setting in. It’s rarely enough to solve the problem outright, but it helps to illuminate options and solutions. To light the way forward.

Like most disinfectant, there is often an initial sting upon first exposure, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of buried problems, rotting behind the scenes.