Even writing that title is hard. I like keeping options open, and it turns out, I’m not alone.
The New York Times tells us about a study from MIT that showed people will pay a cost to keep options open because it hurts to feel a door shut. Here’s a section of the article. It’s a little longer than typical fare here, but worth the read…
The experiments involved a game that eliminated the excuses we usually have for refusing to let go. In the real world, we can always tell ourselves that it’s good to keep options open.
You don’t even know how a camera’s burst-mode flash works, but you persuade yourself to pay for the extra feature just in case. You no longer have anything in common with someone who keeps calling you, but you hate to just zap the relationship.
Your child is exhausted from after-school soccer, ballet and Chinese lessons, but you won’t let her drop the piano lessons. They could come in handy! And who knows? Maybe they will.
In the M.I.T. experiments, the students should have known better. They played a computer game that paid real cash to look for money behind three doors on the screen. (You can play it yourself, without pay, at tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com.) After they opened a door by clicking on it, each subsequent click earned a little money, with the sum varying each time.
As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.
Even after students got the hang of the game by practicing it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.
They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.
Why were they so attached to those doors? The players, like the parents of that overscheduled piano student, would probably say they were just trying to keep future options open. But that’s not the real reason, according to Dr. Ariely and his collaborator in the experiments, Jiwoong Shin, an economist who is now at Yale.
They plumbed the players’ motivations by introducing yet another twist. This time, even if a door vanished from the screen, players could make it reappear whenever they wanted. But even when they knew it would not cost anything to make the door reappear, they still kept frantically trying to prevent doors from vanishing.
Apparently they did not care so much about maintaining flexibility in the future. What really motivated them was the desire to avoid the immediate pain of watching a door close.
“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious — wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.
Students were willing to lose money to keep the options open – even when they were in a better place – even when they could re-open the door at any time. All because we don’t like the feeling of missed opportunities – regardless of how many other opportunities are out there!
I love simplicity. I believe less is more. But I have to admit, I’m still unable to actually follow through sometimes. I received a letter last week turning down my application for an internship that (after the interview) I had decided wasn’t a great fit and wouldn’t be the best option. But it still really bothered me! It’s easy to cling to options instead of “burning the ships” and pressing ahead.
Sometimes, closed doors are a blessing. Less stuff scheduled. Fewer commitments. (And, in church, fewer programs and events vying for people’s attention.)
So where do you need to let a door close?