Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Every day, we are faced with many choices. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the work we do, the people we love… Whether you are at work, school or home, choice is an unavoidable part of life. In fact, we put a great deal of importance in choice, stating that it is a fundamental right of a free individual to make their own choice.

So what happens when this right is taken away from us? A common reaction to this is anger and revolt. People whose freedom are taken away by a dictator will throw a revolution to choose who they want as a leader. Children throw tantrums to show that they do not want their parents to decide things in their stead. There are cases of death row inmates attempting to take their own lives because “ending my life is the one choice I have the right to”.

We like to think we are free individuals, making our own decisions in life. We mock others for being sheeple – choosing to not choose by following the mainstream decision or preference. But choice is often an illusion.
Consider how many of “your decisions” are truly from your own heart. Are you drinking Coke over Pepsi because you really appreciate the taste difference, or because of effective marketing? Are you listening to that song because you enjoy the melody, or because it is at the top of the charts and everyone is listening to it? Are you eating that menu because you were attracted to what the ingredients are, or because the waiter recommended it as “the special of the day”? You would be surprised how little choice you have sometimes, no matter how free you think you may be.

But choice has an ugly, darker side. Making a choice is often difficult, mentally taxing us as we make an internal pros and cons list to try sort things in order and determine “the best choice”. There are countless research showing that the more choice that is available to you, the harder it becomes for you to choose and the more distressed you become. It could be severe to the point that you get analysis paralysis, where you spend so long making a decision that you miss out or never take an action. Not only that, but making a choice puts the responsibility on you. For example, although medicine is moving towards a patient-oriented system where the patient makes an informed choice, the patient may feel burdened with guilt if their choice results in a poor outcome. This applies to every choice we make from day to day in the form of regret. Regret is the sinister monster that makes us think “What if?”. What if we chose differently? Regret leads to blame and blame leads to sorrow and anger at yourself.

This is the paradox of choice. It feels good to be able to express your uniqueness through choice, but at the same time, the freedom of choice can cause pain and distress just as easily. If your choice goes against the group decision, it can make you stand out and cause you to be shunned. This is why so many of us “choose to not choose” and give up our right of choice. Being social animals, we have a tendency of following groupthink while ironically shouting for the importance of free will. To fight this natural tendency and making a choice reflecting your own thoughts, beliefs and identity is a brave thing to do.

However, that is not to say that surrendering your choice is always a bad thing. A couple who met through arranged marriage may have a happier relationship than those who met through romance. People who’ve grown up in communist countries say that “it was easier when we didn’t have to choose everything”. Most importantly, reflect on your childhood where so many of your parents’ decisions – no matter how oppressive they seemed then – turned out to be the right call.

So in the end, the most important choice you can make is this: do you choose to surrender your choice or do you choose free will? Choose whatever makes you happy, because there is no point choosing something and regretting it because you are unhappy.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Abilene Paradox

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (a city 53 miles north of Coleman) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted. One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

This anecdote was written by management expert Jerry B. Harvey to elucidate a paradox found in human nature, where a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is against the best wishes of any individual in the group. Essentially, the group agrees to do something that would not benefit any one, or the group as a whole. This is the Abilene paradox, colloquially known to us through the idiom: “do not rock the boat”.

As seen in the anecdote, there is a breakdown of communication where each member assumes that the majority of the group will decide to follow the action, pushing them towards conformity. There is a mutual mistaken belief that everyone wants the action when no one does, leading to no one raising objections. This is a type of phenomenon called groupthink (coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four), where people do not present alternatives or objections, or even voicing their opinions simply because they believe that will ruin the harmony of the group. They are also under peer-pressure, believing that by being the one voice against the unanimous decision they will become ostracised.

The Abilene paradox explains why poor decisions are made by businesses, especially in committees. Because no one objects to a bad idea (falsely believing that that is what the group wants), even bad ideas are accepted unanimously. This is particularly dangerous when combined with cognitive dissonance, where the group will believe that they chose that decision because it was rational and logical. To prevent this paradox from destroying individual creativity in the group, one should always ask other members if they actually agree with the decision or are merely the victims of groupthink.