Aug 19, 2010

How Much Is Too Much?

Turns out, Robert is more impulsive than Jad, and Jad is more analytical than Robert. Shocking, right? Sadly for Jad, Robert's style may help him better navigate the overwhelming number of choices available throughout modern life's expanse of options, which may also lead him to a greater sense of well-being, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz. Jonah Lehrer helps us understand why by introducing us to George Miller's classic paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which explains the ability of the average human to hold about seven pieces of discreet information in working memory at any given time. Any more than that, and, as researcher Baba Shiv demonstrates, our good judgment can be overwhelmed...a problem Oliver Sacks overcomes by allowing himself only limited options and a strict routine.

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Speaker 3:

You're listening to Radiolab from Public Radio, WNYC and NPR.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Today's show...

 

Speaker 4:

You ever heard of this Jad?

 

Jad Abumrad:

[crosstalk 00:00:46] Is about choice.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well, I mean... I don't know what to expect.

 

Speaker 4:

I believe you are about to see a miracle.

 

Jad Abumrad:

[crosstalk 00:00:50] And we thought we would start things off in a parking lot in sunny Berkeley, California with a psychologist.

 

Barry Schwartz:

I'm Barry Schwartz. I'm a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, where I have been teaching since 1971. The only job I ever applied for. So I think deep down in my past I appreciated the value of simplifying one's options.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He even wrote a book about it called 'The Paradox of Choice.' And to illustrate that paradox he brought us to, well, you'll see.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Barry, will you give us a visual as to what we're doing?

 

Barry Schwartz:

So we're about to walk into Berkeley's very famous Berkeley Bowl, which is a supermarket. Very unusual when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

 

Barry Schwartz:

It has a selection unlike any I've ever seen in my life.

 

Speaker 4:

Jad, could you describe your first view of the produce?

 

Jad Abumrad:

I see just fields of oranges.

 

Barry Schwartz:

So we've got navel orange, Valencia juice orange, Texas Valencia juice orange, organic navel orange, Mineola tangelos, Daisy tangerines-

 

Speaker 6:

Montano bananas.

 

Barry Schwartz:

We have large navel oranges.

 

Speaker 6:

Plantain bananas, red bananas, [inaudible 00:01:56] Saba bananas.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Large Galas, Washington Pacific, Hawaiian plantains, [crosstalk 00:02:00].

 

Barry Schwartz:

We have freedom of choice with respect to everything.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Yellow onion.

 

Barry Schwartz:

And you see it in every area of life.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Pearl onions.

 

Barry Schwartz:

In romantic relationships.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Georgia vidalias.

 

Barry Schwartz:

When I was growing up, the answer to the question, "Should I get married," was obvious. The answer to the question, "When," was obvious.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Which was, "Of course."

 

Barry Schwartz:

Of course and as soon as possible. Well now, there are no defaults. Every imaginable lifestyle is available.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You can be gay, straight, bi.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Exactly!

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh boy. Look at the seedless grapes.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Yeah, seedless grapes.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh wait, wait, more apples.

 

Barry Schwartz:

The sense that there are a million opportunities for you, you can make your own rules, is just overwhelming. Overwhelming. [inaudible 00:02:53]

 

Barry Schwartz:

Counseling centers, psych services centers, and universities are bursting at the seams. Why? These are the most privileged kids ever. The schools are giving them everything they could possibly want, and they are banging down the doors because they're so screwed up. Why? What's going on? An answer is people don't know what to do. They don't know how to choose. They can't face a world in which everything is available. And I see this in the college; it's heartbreaking to see these incredibly talented college seniors, who we have given every opportunity to do what ever they want, terrified at graduation. They know that this is a stage in life where walking through one door means they going to hear a lot of other doors slam shut. They can't bear the thought that they may walk through the wrong door.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's choice angst.

 

Barry Schwartz:

It is. It's the disease of modernity.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is... what?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Say it, say it. Well, just come on. Go ahead and let's do the show, but I say "Come on" in reservation.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Why?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well because, people from Swarthmore College get to pay $45,000 a year for the privilege of... That's a very, very rare slice of America that-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, fine. You're right. You're right.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Thank you.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Come on. You have this too. I mean, how many speeds on your bike do you really need?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well that's a different thing. I mean I don't need 22 speeds. I happen to make do with five.

 

Jad Abumrad:

There you go. So there are some real questions here and on this hour we're going to look at choice.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Choice and decision making. When do we choose?

 

Jad Abumrad:

How do we choose? [crosstalk 00:04:28]

 

Robert Krulwich:

The limits of choice.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Of choice, of choose. Limits of choose.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Limits of choose. On Radiolab.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Stay with us, bitches.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, to begin, are you ready?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yep.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So let me just ask the basic question, a basic question. Which is, okay, so a lot of choice can be bad, but clearly we need some choice. So what's the right amount? Actually, how much can you really handle?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hmm.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I asked that question to Barry Schwartz.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Well, there's a classic study in psychology from 50 years ago called the magic number seven.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

The magical number seven plus or minus two.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's Jonah Lehrer, author of the book "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" and the new book called "How We Decide." In the '50s he says...

 

Jonah Lehrer:

I think like 1956?

 

Jad Abumrad:

A guy named George Miller wondered about this. How much can the human brain really hold? So he conducted a series of memory tests, asked people to memorize different sets of numbers, letters, musical notes, and what Miller found out is that the average human...

 

Jonah Lehrer:

...could hold about seven digits plus or minus two at any given moment in working memory.

 

Jad Abumrad:

When you say working memory you mean what we can keep in our top of mind memory, right? Not like memory, memory but like RAM.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

Exactly. Random digits. You can hold about seven plus or minus two, and with practice people can really bump it up a bit.

 

Jad Abumrad:

With practice Robert, with practice.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm still struggling with six, six, six, six, six, six, six and I think to myself, "I think I got the first four."

 

Jonah Lehrer:

I mean, it's not an accident that so many of these random digits we have to memorize, from phone numbers to social security numbers, are seven plus or minus two.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Now, the interesting thing is what happens to our decision making powers when you try and get more than seven in your head.

 

Robert Krulwich:

What?

 

Baba Shiv:

You want me to shut the door?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yes. [crosstalk 00:06:18]

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well, let me introduce you to someone.

 

Baba Shiv:

I'm Baba Shiv. I'm a professor here at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Marketing. A lot of my research has to do with the brain.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And tricking people.

 

Baba Shiv:

Oh yeah, absolutely.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So Robert, I want to tell you about one particular experiment that he did.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay.

 

Baba Shiv:

So the experiment was pretty straightforward.

 

Jad Abumrad:

[crosstalk 00:06:39] Goes like this. He got a bunch of subjects together. He said, "Okay, I'm going to give you all a number."

 

Baba Shiv:

A number.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... On a little card. You're going to read the number and I want you to commit that number to memory.

 

Baba Shiv:

Take as much time as you want to memorize the number.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And then he says...

 

Baba Shiv:

You're now going to walk to the next room and recall the number. And that's what the subjects think that they're going to be doing.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So they know they're going to be in one place, getting a number, going into another place [crosstalk 00:07:01] and reciting that number.

 

Baba Shiv:

That's right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's all they know.

 

Baba Shiv:

That's all they know.

 

Jad Abumrad:

What they don't know is that not everybody is getting the same kind of number.

 

Baba Shiv:

Some people get a seven digit number. Some people get a two digit number.

 

Robert Krulwich:

That I can do by the way. I think I can do two digits.

 

Jad Abumrad:

No, I doubt it. All the subjects have to do is they've got to memorize a number, walk out of room one, down the hall to room two, then recite their number. Now just imagine, you with me?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Person with a two digit number in their head was walking out of room one.

 

Speaker 11:

One, two is my number. I can definitely remember this.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Down the hall. Same time, someone with seven digits in their head-

 

Speaker 12:

One, two, two, eight, nine, three, six.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... Walks down the hall. Now, here's where the trickery comes in. As they're walking down the hall, mid memorizing, all of a sudden-

 

Speaker 13:

Excuse me.

 

Jad Abumrad:

They pass a lady in the hallway, and she's holding something.

 

Speaker 13:

Sorry to interrupt you, but would you like a snack?

 

Speaker 11:

Um, sure.

 

Speaker 12:

Sure.

 

Jad Abumrad:

She says here, have a snack, just as our way of saying thanks for participating in this study. You can have one of two snacks you choose.

 

Speaker 13:

You can choose between either A, a big fat slice of chocolate cake or B, a nice bowl of fruit salad.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Meanwhile, they've both got these numbers still in their head. Now, here's the weird thing. When they finally make their choice-

 

Speaker 13:

What would you like? Some yummy cake, or some healthy fruit?

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is crazy. The people with two digits in their head-

 

Speaker 11:

You know, I love cake, but I think I'll take the fruit.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Almost always choose the fruit.

 

Speaker 11:

It's healthy.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Whereas the people with seven digits in their head, almost always choose the cake.

 

Speaker 12:

You know, the cake. I want the cake.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And we're talking by huge margins here.

 

Baba Shiv:

It was significant. I mean, this was in some cases, 20, 25, 30 point difference.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Meaning if you have seven digits in your head, you are twice as likely to choose cake than fruit. Twice!

 

Robert Krulwich:

So? Let's get on with this. So the people with the seven digits get the cake. I get that part. I don't know why.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That doesn't interest you as to why they would choose cake?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well, a little. Yeah, why?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, good. Now that I've got your interest, I'll tell you the theory.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And this is where it gets interesting. It seems that the brain is anatomically organized into different systems.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

Dual systems is what they're called.

 

Jad Abumrad:

According to Jonah, you have a rational deliberative system, which is sort of more to the front of the brain and then deeper in the brain you have an emotional unconscious system. And according to Jonah, these two systems are often at war.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

I mean, there's constant competition between the rational brain and the emotional brain. They're always competing for attention and to guide and direct your behavior.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Especially when you have a tough choice like Baba Shiv's cake versus fruit. There, the competition is fierce.

 

Baba Shiv:

The emotional automatic system is pushing them towards the cake.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

The emotional brain loves sweet and gooey chocolate cake. That's really what you want.

 

Jad Abumrad:

On the other hand-

 

Baba Shiv:

The deliberative system other hand comes and says, "Wait a second."

 

Speaker 14:

Are you thinking about this choice carefully?

 

Baba Shiv:

"This probably is not good for you because-"

 

Speaker 14:

Calories, sugar, high fat content.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

"Think about your waistline."

 

Speaker 14:

It's going to make you chubby.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

"Think about your cholesterol."

 

Speaker 14:

It is not good for your health. It is not good for your self esteem.

 

Baba Shiv:

And that acts as a check.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But if you give that rational deliberative system seven numbers, just seven to memorize-

 

Speaker 14:

One, two, two, eight, nine, three, six, one, [crosstalk 00:10:16] two, two, eight, nine, [crosstalk 00:10:17].

 

Jad Abumrad:

Suddenly the rational brain has too much to keep track of. It's getting tired. It can't put up as much of a fight.

 

Baba Shiv:

Which means greater likelihood that the emotions will drive their choices.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The astounding thing here, says Jonah, is not simply that, you know, sometimes emotion wins over reason. It's how easily it wins. Seven numbers is all it takes to screw up reason.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

Just think about how astonishingly limited that is.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. I mean, compared to emotion, team reason is well...

 

Jonah Lehrer:

Pretty feeble and there's no way around it. And we can kind of rage against the machine, but the brute fact is it's just one microchip in a big computer. And when we always rely on it, all the advice getting and decision making is, "Stop and think. Slow down. Take your time." And yet when you actually look at the brain, that can lead you to rely on a feeble piece of machinery.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All right, let me just offer an admittedly inconsequential case in point. There we were at the Berkeley Bowl. In the apple aisle there were thousands and thousands of apples to choose from. Okay, not thousands, but a lot. And Robert and I get in our heads, let's each choose an apple. And Robert being Robert decides like in six seconds.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Because it had this really cool name. Washington Pacific Road, Zaz. I'm going to get a Zaz.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Me? I deliberate. I'm going to get the... Let's go to the organic.

 

Robert Krulwich:

We're running out of time.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I lined up about 12 apples, compared them by price, size, color and everything I could think of. And eventually decided on a giant Korean apple pear, which was the only logical choice because it was bigger than his. This is a nine pound apple. Check.

 

Robert Krulwich:

It is large.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It was more expensive. Two 89. Check. Definitely way more original.

 

Robert Krulwich:

But it isn't an apple. It's a...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Check. And I figure, as we're checking out, game over, I am the winner.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But, a couple hours later we get to the airport. We have some time before our flight. I grab a plastic knife, we cut the apples and we do a taste test. [crosstalk 00:12:29] And guess whose Apple is the best?

 

Jonah Lehrer:

I'm guessing the Zaz apple.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, this is a much better apple. Yes.

 

Robert Krulwich:

So good.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This apple wins in almost every department. My Apple, I don't even want to talk about my apple. This doesn't taste like an apple at all.

 

Robert Krulwich:

It has a surprise. Is that a worm?

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's a gigantic core.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Is that a core, or is that an animal living in there?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Anyhow, according to Jonah, where I went wrong...

 

Jonah Lehrer:

Oh, you've short circuited your prefrontal cortex there.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The prefrontal cortex is right here in your forehead and that's where the irrational brain lives. And I just had given it too many things to keep track of.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

You know all these apples, you can only hold so much data at any given moment. So, you can fixate on seven apples but only one piece of information for each apple. How red they are or how are shiny they are.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So you can't do seven apples with seven variables because then you've got 49.

 

Robert Krulwich:

49!

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's way past full.

 

Jonah Lehrer:

Exactly.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But there is a bigger problem than brain fatigue if you ask Barry Schwartz, and it happens after you choose.

 

Barry Schwartz:

You're plagued with the possibility that you didn't do as well as you could have.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Regret. I'm lamenting what could have been. Which I definitely felt at the airport.

 

Barry Schwartz:

And chances are, you didn't do as well as you could have.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Therein lies the rub in a public place like Berkeley Bowl. You get seduced by an 11 pound Apple that turns out to be a fake watermelon with an anus.

 

Robert Krulwich:

We now understand the problem that Barry proposes. He says that if you have to make a choice, too often the choice is the wrong one because your brain is too full of facts.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It hurts your head.

 

Robert Krulwich:

It hurts your head or because if you make the choice you didn't think, "Oh damn, I should have chosen otherwise." The regret problem.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Right.

 

Robert Krulwich:

There are ways to handle this. Our friend Oliver Sacks, Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neuroscientist, is a regular on this program. We were talking and I told him about this issue and he said, "Oh, I don't have the problem." I said, "What do you mean you don't have the problem?" He says, "Well, I make," he says, "a willful choice that certain things I care about a lot and I worry over, and then there's a whole swath of my life that I just don't choose."

 

Oliver Sacks:

Yes. My housekeeper actually comes tomorrow and she will get half a gallon of soy milk, half a gallon of prune juice. She will make a gallon or so of orange jello, and she will make a large bowl of tabouli. She will get six or seven tins of sardines because I eat sardines with tabouli every evening. She will get seven apples and seven oranges.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Why seven apples and seven oranges?

 

Oliver Sacks:

Okay. Well, because I'm also very greedy and impulsive, and therefore I have to have a rule that I am permitted to eat an apple a day and a pear a day. If I had 70 apples, I would eat them all.

 

Robert Krulwich:

So you have worked it out so that you are regulating yourself and somehow your appetite has become regulated in the meantime?

 

Oliver Sacks:

Yes. I never get bored with my food.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Why not? That seems so boring.

 

Oliver Sacks:

Well, I don't find it boring. I enjoy it equally with equal relish every time.

 

Robert Krulwich:

If I were to sit down with you and describe to you a new candy, I don't know, almond M&Ms, and I were to do it with all the talent that I could possibly bring to description. So you would see the nice outer candy shell. It would glisten. It would be sugary, it would have this most delicious nut inside. Would you not feel at all tempted to break the habit of yours, whatever your sweet is, and just venture over to almond M&M?

 

Oliver Sacks:

I would certainly try the almond M&M, but since you mention it, with chocolate, there is a shop close to me which has broken 72% chocolate. I go there each day. Indeed, I have as you see with me, a single dollar in my pocket. I put it down and I say, "A dollar's worth of 72."

 

Robert Krulwich:

Every day?

 

Oliver Sacks:

Every day. Neither more nor less.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Can you recall the moment when you somehow leaped from whatever your predecessor chocolate routine was to the 72% cocoa content? Something wonderful must've happened on that day where you got yanked from the deep rut that you were in into the next deep rut. I'm just curious, what happened on the day of change?

 

Oliver Sacks:

I don't clearly recollect, but I can tell you a day of negative change. This again goes back to my carnivorous days when I got a thing about kidneys. For some reason-

 

Robert Krulwich:

You mean the organ or the pee?

 

Oliver Sacks:

No, no. The organ. Un rein. It was when I was a resident at UCLA, and as I now have sardines every time for dinner, at that time, living in Topanga Canyon, I would have kidneys. And I would go to the farmer's market and I would buy my weekly kidneys. But on one occasion, a strange mistake happened. Whether I made the mistake or whether I was misheard, instead of my usual two pounds of kidneys, I was given 22 pounds of kidneys. And if a mistake is made, I'm too shy to say anything.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Aren't you embarrassed to be such a wimp, both of routine and of shyness? I mean, it's a double duty there.

 

Oliver Sacks:

Yes, I am. Well, what the hell? Anyhow, with these, I should of course have thrown away this monstrous palpitating bag of kidneys. But in the event, I took it back to my little house in Topanga and then followed an increasingly nightmarish period in which I had kidneys for breakfast, for lunch, kidneys stewed, [inaudible 00:18:23] sweet kidneys. And finally after about 10 days, by which time I'd eaten about 50 [inaudible 00:00:18:28], an uncontrollable nausea and vomiting took hold of me.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Literally, or just of the mind?

 

Oliver Sacks:

I think it was literally as well because I remember seeing bits of kidney in the vomit. And I then threw out the rest of the kidneys and I've never had a kidney since.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oliver Sacks, author of, most recently, the book 'Musicophilia.'

 

Jad Abumrad:

What did he call those kidneys?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Un rein.

 

Jad Abumrad:

What is that?

 

Robert Krulwich:

That's French for kidney.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Really?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Really.

 

Jad Abumrad:

No kidding. What's French for, "Let's go to break?"

 

Robert Krulwich:

Au revoir. Au revoir.

 

Jad Abumrad:

No, but that's good-bye for good.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Meaning, we'll be right back.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay. Coming up, we have a story you will not believe about what happens behind the scenes at a casino when you are trying not to lose, but nonetheless you're getting gouged. That's coming up on Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Stay with us.

 

Speaker 3:

Message one.

 

Barry Schwartz:

Hi, this is Barry Schwartz. Radiolab is funded in part by the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Science Foundation. Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by National Public Radio. Bye.

 

Speaker 3:

End of message.

 

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