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The Paralysis of Choice (or The Hairy Shuttlecock)

posted 16 Aug 2012, 06:02 by Tim Butler
In computer science (was there ever a more scintillating opening gambit than those three deathless words?) students learn about Bayes Theorem. I'm pretty sure I did. Although if I'm honest, all I can remember about it were the pictures.  They showed a box on the left hand side with a bunch of lines coming out of it. These lines extended from left to right (or occasionally from top to bottom) and each line ran into another box, or possibly a circle, from which emerged still more lines which in turn fed into more boxes and more circles.  Pretty soon the lines and boxes would take up the whole of the page until it looks like a giant, hairy shuttlecock. All the boxes and circles are options and the lines leading into and out of them are paths through them. Each diagram represents all* of the possible outcomes stemming from a single decision, and then all of the possible decisions that could lead to and the possible outcomes of those and so on.  

How can you not look at such a picture and not be rooted to the spot with indecision? How can you ever do anything when each action has so very many consequences. Surely amongst all those veins of potentiality there must be one course which is better then all the others. If only you knew what it is was you'd start heading towards it straight away.  If only you knew which pair of jeans would go with all the t-shirts you haven't bought yet, if only you knew which university degree would be the most fun whilst also leading to an equally enjoyable and rewarding career, if only you knew in advance which relationships were really worth investing in and which would terminate in a box with no lines coming out the other side.
If only you knew. 

Because there are so many choices and so many options it's unavoidable that we end up immobile and frozen right on the starting line. Or we get stuck deciding whether to enter the race or wait another year and do some more training. Or we don't know whether racing is really for us after all and maybe we'd be better off just sticking to crochet. 

My advice to you? Do nothing. Yes every journey starts with a single step, but so does every appalling catastrophe. Remain in your home. Pay as you go.   

Only kidding - my real advice to you dear reader, but also to myself, is have a go. Have a bloody go! Try not to think about the hairy shuttlecock and all the options and choices which you could make and instead plough on with the one you did make. Or as my Nan would more or less say, make your bed and lie in it, or it's better to have loved and lost, or there is no try, only do. It was definately one of those. Dear old nan.
*Well I say all of them. If you give it a moment's thought you'll see that this can't be true. You couldn't really have every single possibility, including chased by a tiger, die from a surfeit of lampreys or time reverses itself. You just pull out the ones you are interested in which are reasonably likely. Although I do tend to take it easy on the lampreys these days.