The past months have been a sort of living paradox. On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed (still paralyzes and probably will keep on paralyzing) the whole world, forcing us to stay inside, not to meet people, not to act, basically. On the other hand, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (and the list is, unfortunately, much longer) demanded us to take action. Not to act was a sign of complicity with the oppressors. Yet, even to act, in this context, was problematic and not that straightforward at all. What are the kind of actions that I, as a white Western (young) woman, am allowed to perform? What are the words that I am allowed to use? It might sound silly but for months, I kept asking myself “Should I say or do this? Should I share that?” Acting without hurting anyone or without saying/doing (accidentally) the wrong thing was, and still is, very hard. Acting in a context in which you are explicitly asked by the government not to move because you might be a contagious loose cannon was, and still is, troublesome. If Hamlet could adapt one of his most famous sentences to this situation, he would probably say something along the lines of “to act, or not to act, that is the question.”
We can think of this situation in terms of a well-known example: Buridan’s ass. This famous paradox doesn’t need much introduction. A donkey, placed exactly in the middle between two stacks of hay of equal size and quality, starves to death because it cannot decide between the two stacks. The paradox has been widely used by philosophers discussing free will, and, more recently, it has been adapted and used to claim that “more is less,” meaning that we do not benefit from having more choices, in the end. In 2006, American psychologist Barry Schwartz published an article in Harvard Business Review in which he mentions “The Jam Study,” which shares some similarities with Buridan’s ass. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market see a display table with twenty-four varieties of gourmet jam. Customers can taste the different varieties and get a $1 coupon. On another day, shoppers see a similar table but with only six varieties of jam. Indeed, the larger variety of jams on the table attracts more interest than the smaller one. Yet, when it comes to actually buying jams, those who saw the large display are one-tenth as likely to buy as those who saw the small display. Schwartz used this study to prove the “paradox of choice.” The more varieties of jam you have, the less they tend to differ from each other. To a non-jam expert like me (and maybe like you) the differences between the kinds of jam end up being so small that, eventually, the jams all look the same, as the two bales of hay looked the same to Buridan’s donkey. To have more choices paralyzes us instead of being beneficial (it would be quite funny to see customers literally paralyzed in the middle of the food market like Buridan’s donkey).
In our age, there is an unprecedented opportunity for endless choice. From morning to evening, we are constantly presented with dozens and dozens of choices. I can choose to abruptly change my university career, and study arts and culture in my bachelor, international business in my master, and then do another master in psychology (with probably some additional courses or a pre-master in between). I can go to the gym and have twenty different classes (with different teachers) that I can choose from. I can come home and, in having to choose what to do for the evening, decide to go out for dinner with a friend, to then have to pick not only a kind of cuisine but – upon arrival at the restaurant – decide among ten or more different meals. If I want to relax in the evening and watch something on Netflix, a homepage with hundreds of different options will pop up. It’s not a just a funny meme that sometimes the time we spend picking a movie is more than the time we need to actually watch it.
The funny thing is that on the one hand, having so many choices paralyzes us and makes us doubt ourselves (“Have I really chosen the right study for me?,” “Does the green vegan curry really taste better than the vegetarian pad thai?,” and so on) but, on the other hand, freedom and choice are so strongly connected in our minds that if we are deprived of the latter we feel like our freedom is being violated. Psychologically we do not seem to benefit from this freedom and endless choice. For a very long time, it has been thought that the relationship between choice and well-being was straightforward, and that the more choices people had, the better off they would be. Yet, this turns out to be untrue, and, on the contrary, the time and effort we put into making a choice can actually lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, constant self-doubt (“Have I made the right choice?”) and self-blame (“See? I shouldn’t have chosen this but that!”).
Yet, are we sure that Buridan’s ass is destined to die? Isn’t it possible to break the paralysis induced by the question “to act or not to act”?
Katharina Voigt et al., in their article “Hard Decisions Shape the Neural Coding of Preferences” (2019), claim that there’s actually hope for the indecisive and hesitant donkey! Their study shows that preferences evolve dynamically as (hard) decisions arise, probably to avoid stalemate situations in undetermined decision scenarios. Preferences are not rigid. The donkey won’t always be in doubt between the two bales of hay, it will pick one of them, in the end. The passing of time or the specific situation at hand might influence its preferences leading it to choose the stack on the right today (maybe because there’s a cute female donkey next to the bale) and the stack on the left tomorrow, for instance. Preferences are dynamic and they adjust every time we take a hard decision. Decision-making frameworks are constantly updated and re-evaluated. The authors of the article are still not sure whether preferences change as a consequence of the choice or during the act of choosing. Yet, what is clear from this is that ideal donkeys might starve to death while deciding what to choose, but real donkeys do not, they will eventually have a preference and make a choice.
The paradox “to act or not to act” is not destined to be unresolved for us either. Although we might feel like we do not know what to choose, we will make a choice eventually. We might be inconsistent in our preference. We might give priority to stay at home and do not put anyone at risk at certain times, and we might give priority to show solidarity and go to a protest at other times. We might decide not to share this post today because we are scared that our own positionality will undermine our point or we are unsure about the words to use, and we might resolve that it would be good to write something about it tomorrow. And, in my opinion at least, it is a good thing that our preferences are sensitive to change and re-evaluation.
In this issue, you’ll find many pieces that ask, encourage, and talk about action. Some of them will directly mention the BLM protests, others will be about decolonization more broadly. You’ll also find pieces that mention the corona situation. Every piece – and every author – is influenced by the conditions we live in. You’ll find, as always, interviews and book reviews, some lighter and funnier, other more serious and deep. And if you find yourself in between two options (“Should I start with this piece or another?”), don’t worry: if Buridan’s ass did not starve you won’t either. At some point you’ll make a choice.
Editor-in-chief of Splijtstof