Option overload? There's an app for that

Photo Credit: Illustration by Guy Billout

To capture the depth of my incompetence as a decision-maker, it is perhaps best to revisit the September evening that came to be known around our house as “Steve’s Netflix Nightmare.”

My wife, Erin, had taken our three young kids to visit her folks while I worked overtime to hit a major deadline. After two long days at the keyboard, I was finally done. I had an empty house and a rare opportunity to watch any movie I wanted.

I opened Netflix and began scrolling through my possibilities. Because of the kids, we rarely go out to the movies, so there were immediately a dozen options that looked great.

I ruled out the ones that I might want to watch with Erin, which cut the list in half. Now I just had to decide. Which should have been easy, right? It was only a movie. Choose one. Settle back. Veg out.

But suddenly they all looked good, and for different reasons. The dark documentary about Nazi war crimes. The quirky rom-com with the actress I sort of crush on. The earnest Oscar winner I never caught in the theaters.

So I did that thing Americans do in the age of the internet: I researched. Watched the trailers. Visited the sites devoted to aggregating reviews. Followed the links to longer think pieces. At a certain point, the phone rang.

“What are you up to?” my wife asked.

“Just finding a movie to watch.”

“Wow,” she said. “You’re really burning the midnight oil.”

I glanced at the clock. It was 11:27 p.m. I’d been “researching” for 2½ hours.

“So what are you going to see?” Erin asked innocently.

A rather excruciating silence ensued.

“I haven’t quite decided,” I said quietly.

I am hardly alone in my struggles. Thanks to our relentless ingenuity as a species, citizens of the modern developed world must now contend with an overabundance of options and an overabundance of information about those options. As a result, we are constantly haunted by the suspicion that there is something better out there that we could be watching or wearing or eating or driving.

An entire academic discipline has emerged around the study of decision-making. At institutes such as the University of Chicago’s Center for Decision Research, a small army of psychologists and behavioral scientists is trying to understand, and refine, how we decide.

The emphasis of the prevailing studies is neatly summarized in a recent paper presented by researchers at the Harvard Business School and New York University. In essence, human beings have two systems that guide decision-making. System One is fast, implicit, and emotional. System Two is slower, explicit, and more logical. The busier and more frantic people are, the more they rely on System One. The goal of most academics is to compel us to shift the process from System One (intuition) to System Two (formal analytic processes).

Fortunately, technology – which bears much of the blame for our informational surpluses – provides some potent tools to aid this transition. Which is why I decided to outsource all decision-making to my smartphone for a week. More specifically, to a new suite of apps designed just for basket cases like me.

This happened to be late November, so the first decision I had to make was what to buy our son for his seventh birthday in early December. I should clarify that this decision, like most in my life, was made jointly with Erin.

Judah already had announced what he wanted: a remote-control helicopter that cost $50. I favored a gift certificate to his favorite craft store. We turned to ChoiceMap, the most highly touted of the apps, which required us to enter a bunch of criteria.

That’s the first thing you notice about most of these apps: They don’t really make decisions for you. They force you to specify and quantify (and thus, presumably, clarify) your desires.

So I began entering criteria. Cost, I typed. Then: Educational Value. Then: Chances the Toy Breaks Within Three Minutes of Opening.

“Oh, come on,” Erin said. “It’s a birthday gift. What matters is his enjoyment. Plus, he’s already got more crafts than Martha Stewart.”

That’s the second thing you realize about these apps: They tend to foster pre-decision arguments. After a bit more wrangling, we ranked each criterion’s importance and ChoiceMap spit out an answer.

I don’t think anyone will be shocked to learn that Judah got his helicopter. And, yes, it broke within a day.

My next decision was whether to drive 90 minutes to my in-laws’ for Thanksgiving or catch up on more work. I decided to make this decision on my own, though my list of criteria included Marital Preference and Potential Guilt.

Naturally, I wound up heading down, which led to yet more decisions. Should I allow myself to eat meat or go vegetarian? Should I stay overnight or drive home after dinner? If my in-laws mention their admiration for Donald Trump, should I speak my mind or keep my mouth shut? I dutifully entered these decisions into ChoiceMap.

For the record, I ate about half the turkey, said nothing about the Donald, and wound up guzzling five Diet Cokes to keep myself from falling asleep on the drive home.

The next morning, I played squash with a pal. I couldn’t decide which racket to use: the one with the crack in the frame that always brought me good luck, or the new one with the high-tech grip. Out came the phone.

My pal stared at me in bemusement as I poked at my phone with my thumbs.

And here I began to see the downside of ChoiceMap, along with similar apps such as Decision Buddy. By requiring the user to enter and rank a bunch of raw data, it wound up prolonging the decision-making process.

It also made me aware of just how many decisions I make in the first place: what clothes to wear, what to make the kids for breakfast, what to eat myself, whether to have coffee, what to work on, which emails to return, whether to depress myself by reading the headlines – the list was dizzying. And let’s not even get into shopping for groceries in a supermarket that offers 27 brands of tomato sauce.

What I needed were some apps that simplified the decisions. I turned to my techie friend, Matt. “You’ve got to make some decisions about your decisions,” he said. “If the stakes are low, the input and outcome stress should be low.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant exactly, but as instructed, I installed the app Ultimate Decision Maker, which favors luck over logic. Its tools include a coin flipper, a dice roller, and one of those machines featured in lottery drawings that spit out a numbered ball. I spent a whole day making decisions like this (it’s especially helpful in the grocery store) before realizing that flipping a coin isn’t really making a decision so much as consenting to one.

The app Urbanspoon did a better job of balancing the desire for some volition with the possibility of serendipity. It addresses the problem of where to eat by tracking your location and suggesting nearby restaurants. You enter location, cuisine type, and price and then – get this – shake your phone and watch it spin like a slot machine. Erin and I wound up eating at a Thai joint that has become one of our standbys.

I also experimented with so-called social polling apps, which allow you to canvass your friends and family before making a decision. The catch here is that your friends and family have to have the same polling app on their phones. Most of mine don’t, probably because I’m nearly 50 and didn’t even have a smartphone until last year.

My wife solved this by taking to Facebook. She asked whether we should take our kids on a tour of the West Coast next summer. All of her friends immediately said yes. Many of those who live there offered to put us up.

Even as the positive responses poured in, Erin didn’t look convinced.

“What’s the matter?” I said. “This one feels like a no-brainer.”

“I want to agree with you,” she said. “But none of these people have to spend eight hours in a rental car with a two-year-old.”


To be honest, I didn’t last the full week. I made it 5½ days before deciding that I really needed some decision-making detox.

And what, exactly, did I learn in that span? I learned that there’s a thin but crucial line between being well-informed and overinformed. I learned that good decision-making involves conducting an honest self-inventory of your priorities. Most of all, I learned that focusing obsessively on making the “right” decision is a fool’s errand. The key resides in knowing that there is no “right” decision, only the best one you can make. How you live with your decisions matters as much as, and often more than, what you decide. (For supporting evidence, see Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”)

That week did help Erin and me recognize a disturbing pattern in the way we grapple with smaller-bore decisions: We tend to avoid the bigger ones. Such as whether Erin should get some pricey orthodontia, a matter we had put off for years.

So rather than having harried, indeterminate discussions about this, we sat down and made a list of all the factors. We weighed aesthetics and oral health against cost and inconvenience. Then we conducted a “gut check” to make sure our intuitive sense matched the results of our data crunching.

They did. Come spring, my wife will be wearing the (mostly transparent) braces she has wanted for decades.

We also took on a question that has dogged us for several years: cats. Erin and the kids want them. I don’t. Or rather: I would like to wait until all of our children are capable of emptying a litter box before we get them.

Erin and I spent a long time discussing this decision. I mentioned everything I could to tip the scales: the money spent on cat food and veterinarians, the additional cleanup time, the risk of fleas. Erin didn’t dispute any of those concerns. Instead, she talked about how much cats had meant to each of us as kids, and the role they play in helping children develop empathy. (Rather annoyingly, she had research to back up this point.)

So, OK, we’re going to get cats – just as soon as our two-year-old is fully potty trained.

There are still decisions to make, the main one being whether to move back to California, where I grew up, or stay in New England. That’s too big a call, frankly, for a smartphone app. But the apps have helped us start a more serious and honest discussion about what moving would mean for our family.

As you can tell, nearly all the decision-making apps are geared toward quandaries of personal consumption. But as I thought more broadly about decisions, I realized that many of the internal conflicts I struggle with have to do with my professional life, specifically with how to defend my interests while behaving in an ethical manner.  

For example, I recently wrote an essay that appeared in an anthology. The publisher wrote to ask for my permission to run this essay on a prominent website. The problem was, the website wanted to publish it without paying me.

This is fairly standard practice in the age of the internet. The argument is that the writer benefits from the publicity generated by having his or her work republished.

This may be true, but I’ve consistently argued that writers (and artists in general) who provide work for magazines and newspapers and websites that make money should be paid for that content. This case was complicated by the fact that the editor of the anthology was a good friend of mine, a fellow writer who no doubt wanted my piece to be republished.

As I struggled with what to do, I came across a fascinating decision-making tool, one that may be familiar to Rotarians.

It’s called The Four-Way Test, and it was devised in 1932 by Rotarian Herbert J. Taylor, who was recruited to helm a company facing bankruptcy. The code of ethics he established for his employees, which takes the form of four succinct questions, can be seen as a kind of proto-app:

  • Is it the TRUTH?
  • Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  • Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

I immediately applied those questions to my dilemma. There was no doubt in my mind that asking the website to pay me was fair to all concerned and that such a request honored my own version of the truth.

The problem was that it might lead to ill will with the publisher and the website and, more important, that it might hurt my friendship.

So I wrote a note to my friend explaining my position and asking her advice. She said that as a writer she sympathized with my predicament and that I should do what I thought made the most sense. I then composed a carefully worded note to the editor at the website. She, too, was sympathetic, and promised to ask a higher-ranking editor whether the site might be willing to offer some compensation.

In the end, the website decided not to publish my piece. This was disappointing, but I walked away feeling I had done the right thing in an ethical sense.

I also emerged with the firm conviction that The Four-Way Test needs to be transformed into a smartphone app. Now I just have to decide whether I’m the guy to take this on.

Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.

The Rotarian