The Origin of Choices

Why we choose the things we do

To Make Better Choices, Imagine a Gun to Your Head

How to discover options where you thought there were none.

Shutterstock/Aaron Amat
In a previous post, I argued that the only way to realize positive change in your life is by making choices. To use this insight it is of course necessary to know when one has a choice and when one doesn't.

In this post, I share a simple, portable technique for drawing this distinction.

Often when we were up against a time constraint that seemed impossible to overcome, my doctoral advisor would say, “If someone put a gun to our heads, could we get this done?” The answer wasn’t always yes, but it was surprising to me how that which seemed impossible was indeed possible if we directed all of our attention, motivation, and ability to the task—and nothing else.

I always liked the “gun” question because I could even use it on myself to separate fungible constraints from truly immutable ones, revealing what was actually possible if I decided that the job at hand was in fact the most important in the world.

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The “gun” question can be adapted for other purposes as well. Maybe the most fundamental purpose for it that I have found is to use it to reveal when I have a choice. This version of the question is as follows: “If someone put a gun to my head, could I do X?”

Notice that this version of the gun question does not focus on whether something could be completed in time, but instead it focuses on whether or not something is possible at all. If my answer is “yes,” then I know I have a choice. If the answer is “no,” then I know I don’t.

For example, if someone pointed a gun at me and told me that if I didn’t dunk a basketball on a 10-foot hoop I would die, then I wouldn’t have a choice because I cannot dunk a basketball on a 10-foot hoop. The physical constraints are immutable—I cannot by myself generate enough upward force to dunk a basketball on a 10-foot hoop. I cannot choose dunking over death. More generally, I cannot choose dunking a basketball over anything because it is simply not an option available to me. But if someone pointed a gun at me and told me to eat a cockroach or I would die, I would have a choice—not be a pleasant choice, but still mine to make.

Why would a guy like me, who doesn’t particularly like guns, embrace this “gun to my head” question? Partly because the question is portable. But the main reason is because the thought experiment provides useful information in three ways:

 

1. Since the only way to realize positive change in our lives is by making choices, one of the keys to making positive change lies in having the wisdom to know the difference between when we have a choice and when we do not. The gun question’s ability to remove false constraints helps reveal when a choice exists and when it doesn’t.

Much of the time, the question will reveal that we have a choice, where we previously believed there was none. For example, it would reveal that it is our choice whether to forgive a relative who disinherited us. It would reveal that it is our choice whether we encourage an ailing parent to undergo another round of chemotherapy. And it would reveal that we have the choice to decide whether to eat that cupcake or not. When these actions are considered against the alternative of being shot in the head, it is clear they are superior and that we can take them. Thus, we have a choice.

2. I also find the question useful because of the insight that making a good choice often depends less on picking the best alternative from those immediately available, and more on identifying new alternatives that are initially hidden. For me, ratcheting up the negative consequences helps surface these hidden choice alternatives. For example, I might consider deep frying the cockroach because most fried foods are crunchy and tasty. 

3. The final reason I find the question so useful stems from its ability to help me identify truly immutable constraints, thereby revealing situations where no choice exists. The truth of the matter is that I cannot outpace my colleagues at research, service, and teaching, while being a good father to my children and sleeping enough to stay healthy. It doesn’t matter if there is a gun to my head or not because in a world in which people specialize, I simply cannot be the best at everything. It's not an option. Knowing this helps me focus on the choices I can make to exact positive change in my life.

 

In sum, the “gun” question helps: illuminate a choice where you might initially believe no choice exists; surface alternatives you might otherwise overlook; and reveal those situations where no choice actually exists. Another way to represent these benefits is to convert Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer into a choice motto that reads something like:

Give me the grace to accept when I Do Not have a choice, the courage to admit when I Do have a choice, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

The “gun to my head” question helps us realize all three elements of this motto. It reveals situations where no choice exists, it surfaces choices that might have been overlooked, and in doing so it provides the wisdom to distinguish situations where there is no choice from those where there is. So the next time it seems like you don’t have a choice, I suggest that you ask yourself: “If someone put a gun to my head, could I do this?”

Kurt A. Carlson, Ph.D. is an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and the director of the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research.

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