Overwhelmed by too many choices, writer T.M. Shine came up with a novel solution: Henceforth, all his decisions would be made by strangers. That turned out to be the best decision he’s ever made.
This social experiment had to begin with doughnuts. They have always been my downfall. Not because of the fat, floury contents or the mortality-threatening sugar count, but because I can never decide which dozen to order in the intense pressure of a crowded Dunkin’ Donuts. I start to drown in a torrent of rushed decisions and false moves, with nothing to look forward to but inevitable dissatisfaction with the choices I’ve made; the act has always been a metaphor for my life.
At some point, it occurred to me that my problem wasn’t really doughnuts.
It was making decisions.
These days, there are so many choices to labor through, from the most basic, such as paper or plastic at the grocery checkout counter, to the nearly suicide-inducing, such as the friends-and-family plan or unlimited texting. And don’t even get me started on undercoating or extended warranties.
In these tough times, the abundance of life-changing decisions—finances, health care, career moves—can be overwhelming. But don’t take it from me. Ask the guy who wrote the book The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. That would be Scott Plous, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University. “There’s no question that we have more choices than ever before,” Plous agreed. “And decisions are generally harder and more time-consuming when there are lots of alternatives.”
Even Steve Jobs, whose technology allows us the misery of 18,000 music selections in our pockets, has to counteract so many choices by wearing the same outfit—blue jeans, black turtleneck, New Balance sneakers—every single day of his life. With every move you make, you’re bombarded with predicaments from the banal to the extraordinary, and you obviously can’t trust yourself to make the right decisions anymore—look where that’s gotten you.
I know I’m not alone in this. We’re all feeling a little needy now that the Decider is about to caravan back down to Texas. Whom can we turn to? Friends and family always have their own agendas; therapists are useless. So, who’s left?
Strangers, of course. They’re everywhere.
“Excuse me,” I said to the woman behind me one morning in the queue at Dunkin’ Donuts. “I’m currently asking strangers to make all my decisions. Would you mind picking out a dozen doughnuts for me?”
“I’ll order two, but then you’re on your own,” she said.
Everyone knows the first two doughnuts are the easy ones.
“I’ll do it, but you’ll have to tell me what you like,” a gangly woman who had overheard the previous exchange said.
“Thanks, but that kind of defeats my purpose,” I responded.
“As long as you’re paying,” a thick-armed guy shrugged at me just as it was his turn to order.
He attacked the chore with glee. His choices were a blur of glaze and frosting. He stopped only once, looked back at me and said, “Sprinkles, two sprinkles,” and they fell into the box with the majesty of a fireworks grand finale.
It was a win-win, a successful random act of indecision (RAI). And I was striking a blow for science. “Your experiment will reveal how much pleasure in a dessert comes from it simply being a dessert, rather than a dessert that you would have chosen,” Plous had observed. “In many cases, the difference in benefit between two choices is smaller than we’d guess.”
And that’s not even counting the pleasure of not having to be the one to make the tough decisions. I couldn’t wait to get home and have someone in my family make a face about the two apple crumbs—Why’d you pick the-e-e-se?—so I could reply quite proudly, “I didn’t.”
This may be the best idea I’ve ever had. For two weeks, I relinquished control over my decisions. I turned the reins over to perfect strangers.
At a Starbucks, I was perspiring heavily from a bike ride when I started to ask the woman beside me what I wanted to drink. She cut me off midway through my spiel about how I was conducting a social experiment and whatnot.
“Just have a water,” she said, snatching a bottle from the front case and thrusting it at me.
She herself ordered something that took the barista 11 moves to make, but I was suddenly a model of simplicity: a sweaty man drinking cold water.
Already, my life was beginning to emerge from the fog. Left to stew in my own brew of insecurities, I’d still be tortured over caf, decaf, or half-caf. And the encounter didn’t seem odd. Thanks to television shows such as The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, awkwardness is now fashionable. Awkward is the new suave.
Moments later, I asked a man at the newsstand if I should become a night shaver instead of a morning shaver. I always wanted to be a night shaver—go to bed cleanly shaven and wake up with sexy stubble that would be alluring until at least noon and ...
“Absolutely not,” the gentleman said.
I’m sure he’s right.
Later in the day, when I asked a sandy-haired woman at Old Navy to pick out a shirt for me, she quickly devoted herself to the cause. “I want you to have a crisper, cleaner look,” she exclaimed.
I was still feeling crisp and clean when I stopped at the library. The mission: to give a stranger the chore of selecting a book for me to read.
“You sure? Picking out a book ... that’s kind of an intimate decision,” the chosen one said. She was sitting at a tiny table with a little boy and looking up at me as if I were one more irritation in an already long day. But once I said I was positive, she popped up as if she’d just adopted me.
“Follow me,” she said.
With the little boy in hand, she cut across the library with the supermarket stride of a mom who just realized she’d forgotten the Fruit Roll-Ups two aisles back. We were headed deep into the bowels—past the self-helps, beyond the reference books, even. Then she stopped, pivoted, dropped a 4-pound book in my hands and said,
I thanked her profusely, but I’m not sure it even registered. She just mentally checked me off her list and was on her way. The whole encounter—in fact, the entire day—was astonishing. By dusk, my new life’s course had been set by an entire team of people whose names I didn’t even know.
I’d accepted all advice without question, with one exception: While at the local cineplex, I asked the third woman in line what I should see, and she said, Nights in Rodanthe. I just couldn’t do it. I went home to watch Bones on TV.
At an ATM stop on the way home, I gave the guy waiting behind me no preface. I just asked—“Should I get up early tomorrow or sleep in?”—and he just knew.
Good decision. I needed the sleep, because I stayed up late reading The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong. I got to Page 136 before closing my eyes on a brave new world.
If any one group of people was ever in need of a diversion it’s the group waiting for the 12:15 p.m. to Newark.
At least that’s what I thought when I arrived at the airport with an armful of decisions that needed making. In my hands were printouts of several health-care and financial options, as well as a brochure for night courses available at a nearby junior high school. With that kind of workload, I needed people both bored and contained.
My initial stratagem was to approach individuals who appeared friendly—which meant they were wearing sneakers. Well, people who wear sneakers are actually quite ornery. Oddly, it’s the Bluetooth type—and, more specifically, individuals with two laptops—who are the most gracious, endearing people on the planet and who are ideal for this type of social experiment.
“I don’t do experiments, but let me see those papers,” a two-laptop guy said, snatching the documents out of my hands.
I told him he didn’t have to do it all, that I was going to spread the work around, but he ignored me. Then, without looking up, he handed the course brochure back to me and said, “Get somebody else for this.”
I left him looking over the financial papers and found a guy four seats over who took two phone calls just during the 15 seconds it took me to explain my predicament.
“Okay, what have we got here?” he finally said as if he were used to people constantly sticking things under his nose to sign off on. When it came to making big decisions, he was on cruise control. “Does the class have to be useful?” he asked. “There’s stuff like ‘How to Start a Home Business,’ and then there’s just junk like ... like calligraphy.”
“Useless is good,” I said.
Back in the next row, just as Two-Laptops started thumbing through the health-care and financial documents, a colleague of his showed up, and I thought for sure my man was going to get sidetracked. But Two-Laptops was homed in on my task, and the next thing I knew, the associate wanted in and had his hands on the health plans. “I used to be in the insurance business,” the associate said. “They’re all scum.”
I had planned to leave the three Bluetooth types alone while they worked diligently on major decisions I didn’t want any part of, but they started bombarding me with questions before I could stray.
“Do you already have coverage?”
“Yes, but I need to switch.”
“Are you going to be adding money to your 401(k)?”
“No, I don’t plan on ever making any more money.”
“Do you like watercolors?”
“No, I mean, yes!”
“Are you the type that would seek out unconventional treatments and never give up?” Two-Laptops asked.
“No, no, I’m famous for giving up.”
But, they didn’t give up. Which is the beauty of RAI.
1. BlueCross BlueShield Limited Benefits Plan 71—hospital and surgical only.
2. Straight Vanguard money market account with annual yield of 0.09 percent.
3. One-stroke painting.
I was almost giddy.
When I told a friend about my experiment and how much I was getting accomplished, she posed an interesting question: “What if you can’t stop?”
In fact, the question was so good that I’ve decided there is no good reason to shut down this adventure after only two weeks. Random Acts of Indecision is not a social experiment. It’s a lifestyle.
As I write these words, I am sitting in a pizzeria eating pizza toppings—mushroom and sausage—chosen by the frail man I had held the door for on my way in. I am wearing a striped shirt picked out by a meticulous woman and, between sips of iced tea, glancing at Page 351 of a book that is enlightening me to the “Cho-WE Cho-WE” of the Carolina wren.
The old adage “You have no one to blame but yourself” doesn’t apply to me anymore. In 2009, when things go wrong, I will have no one to blame but each and every one of you.
From a longer story published by The Washington Post Magazine. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.