Fullness of Choice – going Deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
This is a really interesting one. We live in a culture that has a kind of reductive version of choice. On the one hand, we’ve got a lot of binary choices: Coke or Pepsi, Democratic or Republican, pro-life or pro-choice… We are habituated to picking the best of two, particularly in our politics. On the other hand, we face an overwhelming variety of choices, many of which have insignificant differences or there is no way to really find out what’s going on with each of those choices (assuming we have the time and interest to make an informed decision on them).
At the point of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe a government official from Bulgaria was staying over with some friends of mine in Berkeley. They took him to a large grocery store. He didn’t know what to do with all the choices in the grocery store, with many brands of every possible food. How was he supposed to decide?! He was not used to that abundance of choices. On the one hand, we could proudly declare: “Look! Our Western society is so full of abundance!” But when we start looking closely at what those choices are and where they come from, we find something interesting: our capitalist market system is set up in a way that inspires people, wherever they can find a niche, to put a product into it, and then promote the hell out of it.
That dynamic has generated a whole pile of basically useless differences between thousands of things. Thus, we have Amazon and box stores and seemingly endless choices. And it turns out that a lot of those product reviews we depend on to help us choose are manipulated. It’s like: “This is totally overwhelming!!” – and it reaches a point of almost borderline uselessness.
We’re pushed into binary choices while at the same time facing thousands of often meaningless choices. These are two sides of a spectrum of dysfunctional choice.
Usually when we are given an A or B choice, we don’t have a lot to say about what’s in A and what’s in B. Very seldom are we given a choice of Coke or milk, for example, or juice or Pepsi. When we are in a health food store we don’t get to choose the Pepsi.
So we face an interesting question of what would make the act of choice most meaningful? We could start by having an ability to generate choices out of our experience, out of our values, in conversation and engagement with other people. That would increase the chance that we’d face a meaningful set of choices. If we could generate the six most popular choices, and then talk about them, and come up with a decision about them, that’s a very different thing than individually facing dozens – or just two – choices.
There is a prioritization exercise I like called “35”, in which people create their idea for the best solution to a shared community problem. Each person writes down on a card the one thing they think is best thing to do about it. Then they mill around each other, trading off cards with each other and then pairing up for a little mini-deliberation. In that deliberation, each pair of people has one minute to distribute seven points between the two cards they ended up with – e.g. two and five, or three and four, or zero and seven (always adding up to 7) – and then to write down the appropriate number on the back of each card. Then they mill around and do the whole thing again – and again! – five times in total. That is why it is called “35” (5 voting rounds × 7 possible votes from each round = 35 maximum votes on a card). After the fifth voting round is over, the facilitator asks people to stop and look at the back of the card they’re holding. The facilitator asks the crowd, “Does anyone have a 35? a 34? a 33? etc….” counting down and writing down any items that participants shout out – which are the items with the most votes – in descending order. After a few minutes of this, the facilitator could say something like: “OK! We’ve found the 10 most popular choices! Now let’s get together and talk about those choices and see what we want to do with them – either pick one of them or come up with something different that was inspired by our conversation about that.” So that’s one example of people co-generating their choices.
Dynamic Facilitation, one of my favorite processes, evokes a kind of conversation that Jim Rough, the founder of the method, calls “choice-creating” because the participants are creating and looking at choices just in the process of saying what they’re thinking and feeling all time. It is a very interesting approach.
We want to have choices that we participate in creating. And we want to have a full range of choices with information about all of them. Of course, if that range is going to get too big, we want to have it curated or combined in various ways. There are websites that do this kind of thing, like nonpartisan voter information sites. And there are various pundits and thought leaders who do this.
This pattern language itself is a curated bunch of items. What do you want to focus on? Well, you pick one of these patterns to focus on, and on their pages you find bunches of resources and information about them, all organized for you.
So while you love to be able to delve deeper into subjects and choices, it’s nice to have somebody doing the work of sorting it all out, like Wikipedia – where those somebodies are all volunteers – or professional curators of information, gathering, selecting up, evaluating and presenting it in useful form to you.
There’s some interesting research about the process of choice in decision-making. It shows you can’t make a fully rational choice. You can’t make a fully rational decision because you have to WANT something in order to make a decision. Reason and facts and research and all that can only go so far, telling you about what the consequences would be – the advantages and disadvantages associated with this or that choice. But you can’t then CHOOSE until you WANT something. WANTING is a feeling or desire. It’s not rational (although it can be – and often is! – justified in various rational ways). People can want different things just because they want them. So values and desires and dreams are intrinsically part of choosing. So we also want to have a process of choice that honors that dimension of the process.
Expertise on Tap (Not on Top) is another pattern here which embodies that in a very central way. We want information to help us figure out how to actually get what we want because sometimes you can be given choices that LOOK like they might get you what you want but don’t actually do that. The information given is manipulated and designed to get you to choose something for somebody else’s benefit, not for your own. So we want to have good information and we want the sources of information to be fair and “on tap” – not trying to dominate our process.
And we want to have all the different forms of intelligence at play (the Multi-Modal Intelligence pattern comes into play here). There’s a story I read in a book called “Creating Community Anywhere“ about the Turtle Island Fund, an alternative foundation. They invite all these applications, they study them, do research on the different things that people propose to do, etc. They absorb all the rational, detailed, factual information from their research on all these applications and then they do a meditation. The project or program directors of this foundation sit down together and meditate on what they’ve learned and open up to any images, words, voices,… whatever comes up when they just sit together with what they have learned. And that process decides whether a particular application is going to be accepted or rejected. Then they write to the people who applied and say “This is what we found, this is what happened when we thought about it and sensed into it.” Apparently the people who are rejected get as much benefit as the people who are accepted. So that’s an example multi-modal intelligence being applied to something that’s very specific and grounded – i.e., a proposal for funding to DO something.
We also read in the pattern heart that it includes “delving into conversations, understandings and meanings that enable wise choices.” We’re not just facilitating individual choice to do whatever people want. We are trying to help them have choices that serve the prime directive: We want to “take into account what needs to be taking account for long-term broad benefit” and “We want to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.” The choice point here lies between the first part – the wisdom – and the second part – the resourcefulness: We want to evoke and engage the resourcefulness of the whole in order to be able to have the whole make a good decision on its own behalf and to implement that decision.