The Origin of Choices

Why we choose the things we do

The Only Way to Make Positive Change in Your Life

A simple truth on which we can all agree.

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In a moment, I am going to tell you one of the few universal truths I believe. It is the most powerful and useful universal truth of which I am aware because it highlights the way to personal success. But before we get to that, you should know that as a data guy, I am often the most skeptical person in the room. To give data the weight it deserves, I try to check my opinions and preferences at the door. In fact, the only quote above my desk includes the phrase, “What one likes and what one dislikes is the disease of the mind.”

It is this commitment to data (not to theory or faith) that makes me so skeptical of many so-called universal truths. Most turn out to be wildly false when tested against the data. And believing in a universal truth can be damaging, as it discourages one from embracing data that contradict it. To avoid this trap, I tell my students that if they ever encounter a statement including always, never, every, or only, it is almost certainly wrong because most truths are conditional. For example, people find a harder task more interesting only if the task provides an intrinsic reward for completion and only if they have enough time to complete the task.

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Don’t get me wrong. I understand the appeal of universal truths. I like the idea of wrapping myself in their security, simplicity, and smugness as much as the next person. And I would love to find a magical chest full of universal truths buried in my backyard. Unfortunately, after 45 years of looking, I’ve only discovered a handful I believe are worth sharing.

For example: Everything breaks down over time. Everything is relative. And: Theory and preference are enemies of data.

However, the one universal truth that, to me, seems most provocative, useful, and unconditional is this: The only way to realize positive change in your life is by making choices.

That’s right. The only way that you, I, my children, President Obama, Vladimir Putin, or Justin Bieber can positively change our lives is through the choices we make.

How can this be?

The key is recognizing that we make many more choices than we realize, or that we are willing to acknowledge.

We choose to watch scary movies. We choose to befriend people with good (or bad) habits. We choose to shake our dad’s hand instead of hugging him. We choose to go to school. We choose to watch the evening news. We choose to live in the suburbs. We choose to commute a long distance. We choose to get married. We choose to have children. We choose. We choose. We choose.

Some choices we make that don’t seem like choices at all. These generally fall into two categories: habits and normative behaviors. Habits are choices that we make so regularly that over time they demand less and less executive control. As a consequence, they start to seem automatic. But they aren't. When it comes to bad habits, we may even be motivated to cede control to automaticity. That is, we may tell ourselves that the choice was made long ago and that we are now at the mercy of the automaticity that has emerged in its wake. An example: Riding the elevator instead of taking the stairs. After years of riding the elevator to his office on the third floor, a middle-aged man may find it nearly impossible to drag his body to the stairwell. His body seems to almost pull him to the elevator button instead. But the sooner the man acknowledges that he is choosing to take the elevator, the sooner he can begin looking for tricks to help him choose the stairs over the elevator—tricks like seeing if he can make it to the first, second, or third floor without breathing heavily.

Yes, we pretty much always have a choice. Even when it comes to norms that feel impenetrably strong, where no choice seems to exist, there is always a choice. You can choose to cut the brand labels off your clothing. You can choose to drop out of school and start a company. You can choose to ask a co-worker for help with something you take great pride in being good at. You can choose to tell your mother you don’t like her habits. You can choose to hug your father instead of shaking his hand. You can choose to allow someone else to feel strong in your presence.

Sartre said, “We are condemned to be free.” My take on this is that if we have free will and choice, then we must accept ownership for the choices we do or do not make. Our freedom to choose is what makes us responsible for who we are, and thus, we are condemned to be responsible for who we are.

We are condemned to choose.

If we decide not to choose, that too is a choice. If we relegate the raising of our children to the role models of the day, that is a choice as well. We cannot have free will without owning our choices. And as a person who has free will, the only way to realize positive change in your life is by making choices.

It is this power of choice—to be an agent of good and bad for ourselves—that drives me to study the choices people make and how they make them. Every couple of weeks I will post an entry here. My posts will share data from new research studies my colleagues and I have run, thoughts I have about the choices people make, and how these choices originate. I study choice because I want to help people make better choices. As a professor of marketing, I sometimes write for managers, but I also write for consumers—because consumers who understand themselves have the power to make choices that can positively influence their lives.

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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