In an MIT lab, undergraduates are getting paid money to open and close doors: real money, virtual doors. The students are navigating between rooms on a computer screen, part of a game devised by psychologists Jiwoong Shin and Dan Ariely. Players get a limited number of clicks, which they can use either to click on a door or to click inside a room. Clicking a door costs nothing but also pays nothing—all it gets you is the chance to enter a new room. Clicking inside a room pays out at a variable rate depending on which room you’re in—anywhere from three to fourteen cents for every click. After a few minutes roaming the three rooms, the players figure out which one has the highest payout ratio. If they want to keep accumulating money, they’ll stay in that room and keep clicking.

Here’s where the game gets devious. Sometimes, while the player is happily clicking away inside the room with the best return, gathering cash, the two unused doors start to shrink. Eventually each door disappears—unless the player clicks on it in time to bring it back to full size. People get twitchy as those doors shrink; they do whatever it takes to keep them from disappearing. They’d rather rescue the door—which they have no real desire to go through, since the room it leads to doesn’t pay out as much—than keep getting rewarded for staying where they are.

Shin and Ariely tested 439 twentysomethings, and the majority scrambled to restore the doors even when it meant losing the money they could have earned by staying put. And they kept clicking to save the doors even when the rules changed and the door click actually cost them something—not just the loss of a click but an additional six cents, or in some cases an additional thirty cents. The students knew the room they were already in gave them the best odds for accumulating pennies. But they acted as if they wanted the other doors there just in case. Just in case what?

“There is an inherent tendency to keep options open, even when doing so is costly,” Shin and Ariely wrote in a report of the study in 2004. “Decision-makers overvalue their options and are willing to overinvest to keep these options from disappearing.”

That’s what happens in your twenties, too. You want to keep every option open, just in case.

But you can’t do it all. And maturity, arguably, means coming to that realization and admitting that it’s time to start making choices and closing a few doors.

Adapted from Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig.

About the Author

Robin Marantz Henig

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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