Controversial musings on the illusion of choice

TL;DR Notes:

  • The concept of “Choice” doesn’t exist. At any given time, a human has a number of options available it can discern. All humans will do what they think is their best option.
  • Choice implies that it is possible for humans to knowingly select a sub-optimal option. This is not possible.
  • Heightened self-awareness can help you discern more options. And thus increase available options. But you will still be compelled to do what you perceive as being best for you (across short-term and long-term).

You will likely hate this article.

Mostly because it will force you to examine cherished ideas that are likely giving your life meaning. Specifically ideas that underpin many societal viewpoints on success & individual agency.

Ideals that are taken as being so obvious that they are hardly questioned. Yet, question them we shall — because uncomfortable doesn’t always mean incorrect.

Let’s get started!

Illusion 1: The illusion of choice

One of the biggest & most central principles that help give some meaning to our lives. As a society we are committed to the idea of being responsible for your lives, and of having a choice. Your choices, after all, impact your life directly.

At a deeper level, this belief makes sense because giving up the ability to choose seems like giving up control of your life. And who wants to give up control?

It is also very to difficult to believe in free will (vs pre-determination) while also admitting that we don’t have choice or agency.

Even with knowledge of all these negative implications, I can’t help but conclude that the ability to “make” choices is an illusion. Rather, your conscious self is more like a passive observer vs the driver.

Don’t believe me? Let’s investigate.

Let’s first start by what it means to “make a choice” for most people. While it is not an exact science, we can identify some common elements that constitute a choice. For example:

  • Options: 2 (or more) mutually exclusive options of the way forward*
  • Timing: When does the choice need to be made — some available paths may no longer be available with the passage of time
  • Investment: Each option requiring a different amount of input from you (most notably, time or effort)
  • Return: Each option presenting you with some likelihood of a reward (the likelihood and timing of reward may be different)

In this context of a “choice”, the best choices are ones where you:

  • Identify as many possible paths from a given moment as possible
  • Identify these paths well before the no/no-go deadline
  • Choose an option that maximizes return while minimizing investment

Looking at the above three criteria, let’s see where freewill can fit in?

  • Step 1: Identify as many possible paths from a given moment as possible

The ability to determine possible paths is shaped by nature (underlying intelligence/creativity) & nurture (prior experience on the topic).

At any given point in time, the “paths available” are dependent on the person and the context. There’s no freewill as such (unless you argue that nurture was based on previous choices — but let’s hold off on that recursive logic for a moment)

  • Step 2: Identify these paths well before the no/no-go deadline

For most of us, acknowledging that a choice must be made usually happens when we anticipate a problem. Much like the point above, the anticipation of such problems depends on nature, nurture and luck (actual events transpiring that hint at a problem down the road).

I.e., there is no choice involved, we’re merely observers that react based on our natural inclinations, prior experiences or transpired events.

  • Step 3: Choose an option that maximizes return while minimizing investment

This part of choice-making is where people believe the magic lies. But here’s the thing — as much as we like to believe we’re choosing for the best eventual outcome, it is actually impossible for us to do otherwise.

In a given moment, we will be aware of a number of choices, along with limited (and changing) information related to those choices. In each case, we will make a choice that best reflects the most advantageous outcome based on our limitations.

Is it really a choice to inevitably take the ONE path which promises to be the best? Who would NOT do that?

There are a few common refrains I usually hear at this point:

  1. Choice exists because I know I can do XYZ anytime I want to!

No. I’m sorry, but you only think you can do XYZ (for argument sake, let’s say this is drop-kicking your boss) anytime you want to. When it comes down to it, you will only drop-kick your boss when it presents itself as the best available option — it just seems like an always-ready option in your head.

Even now, while reading you may truly believe you have the option to do it, you just don’t want to do it. This mimics reality — a lot of options seem available, but if you’re being honest you’d never do them.

2. Choice exists because I know I make different choices when faced with similar circumstances in daily life.

Similar circumstances aren’t the same circumstances. There’s too many variables to control in the real world for you to ever come across an identical choice-making moment.

The most important of these variables is often most overlooked as well — our own psychology & physiology.

We are not stable creatures, and our perspectives on return, investment and risk change from time to time. While this is blatantly obvious when we think about how we mature over the years, it is also true in much shorter time-frames (of days or even hours).

For example, your perspective on three hours of additional work (for the same return) is not going to stay constant — you may feel very different about putting those hours in after a 14 hour workday vs a Tuesday morning. Or the now famous study which proves that parole officers are more likely to grant parole when their glucose levels are highest (right after lunch).

The point is, your conscious mind doesn’t exert control on the way you think about various options. Even though it may seem like that to you.

3. Choice exists because people in very similar situation make different decisions

Yes. People make different decisions in similar situations. But each of them choosing what they think is the optimal course of actions.

When you go through the components of a “choice” — i.e., option identification & investment/benefit analysis, it becomes clear that the decision maker himself is integral to the choice-making scenario.

You can’t remove the decision maker from any decision-making scenario. Each decision maker impacts the entire scenario in his/her own unique way.

Therefore, while making separate decisions in seemingly similar situations, one could argue that each person is forced to make the decision that seems optimal.

What we call “choice” may just be an exercise in gaining more awareness of your future actions.

In fact, it is my belief that self-awareness is key. And that by heightening your sense of awareness you may be able to “see” more options when making decisions, and may become a better judge at how to assess the true impact of each option. In effect, focusing on becoming self-aware may help guide you to a other decisions than previously possible (you still don’t have a choice, but you do have a higher number of options to consider).

If choice doesn’t exist, then what else does that impact?

This is exactly what I would love to discuss in Part 2

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Vichar Mohio

Vichar Mohio

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Writing about topics I find interesting & original. Usually a mix of philosophy, evolutionary psychology & technology