Dan Ariely suggests that keeping your options open may actually hinder you in the long run. For most, it is difficult to close doors, buying the camera with the extra bells and whistles for “just-in-case”, as well as investing time in relationships with individuals you no longer have anything in common with.
In the M.I.T. experiments, the students should have known better. They played a computer game that paid real cash to look for money behind three doors on the screen. (You can play it yourself, without pay, at tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com.) After they opened a door by clicking on it, each subsequent click earned a little money, with the sum varying each time.
As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.
Even after students got the hang of the game by practicing it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.
They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.
Why were they so attached to those doors? The players, like the parents of that overscheduled piano student, would probably say they were just trying to keep future options open. But that’s not the real reason, according to Dr. Ariely and his collaborator in the experiments, Jiwoong Shin, an economist who is now at Yale.
They plumbed the players’ motivations by introducing yet another twist. This time, even if a door vanished from the screen, players could make it reappear whenever they wanted. But even when they knew it would not cost anything to make the door reappear, they still kept frantically trying to prevent doors from vanishing.
Apparently they did not care so much about maintaining flexibility in the future. What really motivated them was the desire to avoid the immediate pain of watching a door close.
This study shows that we as human beings frequently invest our time in keeping doors open, when it would probably behoove us to close some doors – making time to open new ones, or just explore the ones we currently value. Dr. Ariely hypothesizes that closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and that keeping doors open translates into wasted time and missed opportunities. Sometimes this means we are working longer hours at our jobs – and missing out on time with our loved ones. He urges us to re-evaluate our current open doors, and close the ones we can, resigning from committees, prune holiday card lists, and rethink hobbies.