Algorithms and The Illusion of Choice

choices

While it is nice to believe that we live in the free world, especially with the anonymity and lack of regulation on the internet, this simply is not the case. Most applications and websites will run based on some sort of algorithm, as the secret sauce that makes the product successful. This algorithm however, is also the law that bounds the digital world, controlled by the software engineers that determine how we use and interact on the internet.

How Algorithms Work

Algorithms are complex in it's final creation, but quite an easy concept to understand. It is essentially a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed. Algorithms can perform calculation, data processing and automated reasoning tasks. An easy way to conceptualize this is to think of a decision tree, or a combination of if-then statements. 

How Algorithms Rule Social Media

Back during the American elections, the Wall Street Journal created a social experiment of creating 2 separate Facebook accounts with very different interests and beliefs. After some page likes, the newsfeed looked dramatically different to each user.

This exists to fulfill a concept called confirmation bias. Showing us the information we love seeing and confirming our already existing beliefs. Social media companies know this as well, they feed us this content that we like seeing in order to keep us on their site longer, and sell us more advertisements.

More Choices Affects People Psychologically

This paradox of choice is a theory coined by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, stating that reducing consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. He categorizes people into two types: choice maximizers and satisfiers. 

Choice Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice.

Choice Satisficers are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.

As a result, satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice.

An example of this is online dating. A couple decades ago, most people married a spouse within a close geographical proximity to them that came from a similar background. This restriction no longer exists. With Tinder, Bumble and endless apps at the tip of our fingers, we have created a society of mating with endless possibilities. 

However, most developed countries also share a similar trend, decreasing marriage rates. There are likely many causes to this, such as the increasing economic power of females in society, increasing expenses of raising a family, decreasing rate of religious beliefs and the institution of marriage. However, another huge factor simply is choice. We now have an endless list of potentially a better partner, so why settle for the this one?

Conclusion

Here's a few key strategies to cope when it comes to being served too little variety in information or too many options for choosing.

To avoid being exposed to the same kind of information trapping us in echo chambers, try to keep an open mind to different ideologies and beliefs. Try to read and obtain information from a variety of opposing sources before determining to know the full story. 

Barry Schwartz also developed a step-by-step guide on making decisions to prevent analysis paralysis .

  1. Figure out your goal or goals. 
  2. Evaluate the importance of each goal. 
  3. Array the options. 
  4. Evaluate how likely each of the options is to meet your goals.
  5. Pick the winning option.
  6. Modify goals.

Mathematically, the fussy suitor problem was developed as a way to optimize selecting the best mate. The summary of it all is that you should date 37% of the total number of people you plan on dating and pick the next best one. You can read about it more extensively here.

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