False choices

The human brain really likes two-sided arguments. They are easy to understand. However, the either/or mindset produces some interesting false choices that then shape the cultural narrative. The danger is that people make real choices about their lives without considering other variables.

A few I’ve heard over the years:

From a high school student: to get into a good college, should I take hard classes and get lower grades, or easy classes and get As? Here’s a different way of looking at it: a “good” college is probably more challenging than even a “good” high school. To show you’re capable of the work at a rigorous university, you should be taking hard classes in high school…and getting As in them.

From someone contemplating careers: Should I do what I love or do what pays the bills? Another way of looking at it: The labor market is getting more efficient, but is still pretty “sticky.” People land in jobs because they know someone, or happened to be looking at a certain time, not because that particular job optimized on any variable: pay, enjoyment, etc. If you’re at the absolute peak of one variable — enjoyment, say — then it would be impossible to find a job that you enjoyed more and paid more. But are you sure you’re at a peak? There are lots of jobs in this world. If you don’t like what you’re doing now, it’s always possible you’ll like a better paying job more.

From armchair historians: Women entered the workforce in droves between 1960 and now. Therefore, they must be spending less time with their children. Another way of looking at it: women do not spend 100% of their time on two categories: work and children. There turn out to be other categories too: housework, sleep, bridge games, etc. When you consider all these other categories, it is quite possible that time spent at work and time spent with children could rise in tandem. And, in fact, that’s exactly what serious time use historians have found happened.

I’m always looking for other examples…

18 thoughts on “False choices

  1. This is one of the things I love about engineers- cost/risk/benefit analysis. In my family’s numerous medical issues, I’ve found we’re rare in sticking to costs and statistics in the mist of emotional turmoil. Very few decisions are simple choices. (I wouldn’t call them false, I would call them complex.)

    1. @Twin mom- yep, engineering seems to be good for this. Economics too. I’ve been thinking lately about all the false choices in education and health, in terms of dollars and outcomes. It seems like spending more to reduce class sizes should produce better outcomes, but if the most important variable is teacher quality, and reducing class sizes means you’re dipping lower into the teacher applicant pool than might be wise, then smaller classes could produce worse outcomes. Or maybe some other variable is even more important (maybe small classes need ability grouping to capture the gains). With health care spending, it also seems like spending more should produce better outcomes, but the US spends quite a bit and has lower longevity than many other places. What other variable is not represented in that equation? Then there’s the political one on whether lower taxes mean lower government revenue, or if lower taxes produce GDP growth, and hence are more revenue neutral (or the flipped version of this, if higher taxes increase revenue, or if they induce people to reduce taxable income, and hence are more revenue neutral or even revenue-reducing).

  2. This is interesting because one thing that I do with my three year old is give her ‘fake choices’. (I don’t explain it that way to her, of course.) “You can choose this outfit or that outfit. You can have juice or milk.” I do this so she has the feeling of choice while still doing what needs to get done. (Ok, sometimes she inserts her own choice: have a giant tantrum, but I digress.) My point here is that this simplistic, either or thinking is childish. As adults we learn that nothing is simple, there are shades of gray everywhere and options are unlimited. I think this gets overwhelming for people and so they hem themselves in with either/or, good/evil, happy/sad when life is much, much more than that.

    1. @Kelly- so true! One thing I appreciate about my 4-year-old (not from the parenting perspective but from the human perspective) is that he totally sees through my fake choices. He will look at me quite seriously and say “I don’t want either of those.” Sometimes he even gives me fake choices in return!

      1. It took me until I was 13 to realize that “neither” was an option. My mother was so lucky! (Me, not so much… DC figured it out pretty early on, but it was great while it lasted.)

        1. @N&M – even my two-year-old has now figured that “neither” is an option. He just told me that this weekend when I gave him a fake choice. I was like you can’t do that!

  3. False dichotomies are one of my pet peeves! We limit ourselves terribly when we engage in all or nothing, either/or, black and white thinking.

    For example, my husband stopped mountain biking (a source of exercise and stress relief for him) when we got married – to my chagrin! I encourage him to take it up again but he has convinced himself that he can’t be a good husband and father if he takes the time to mountain bike.

    Despite my protests (and he’s gained weight which he dislikes), he continues to reason this way. I’ve pointed out that this is a false dichotomy, but he persists.

    Why do we do this to ourselves?

    1. @Carrie- ugh, that’s a bad one. Especially since the added stress (and weight) probably does more harm to his self-image and hence to the relationship than the time away to bike would do! There could be a post in making time for big projects without taking too much time away from family. I trained for a marathon two years ago, and basically took a half day off work each week to do my long runs.

      1. Exactly… it does!

        The thing is, he’s no slouch in the Daddy department so the guilt is really false. He puts the toddler to bed every night, spends most of the weekend hanging out with the family, taking kids to the park, he’s home for dinner every night, etc.

        1. @Carrie – it is funny how we can say things and people don’t really hear them, because they assume you must not mean it. We have certain scripts that run in our heads that are very difficult to change.

  4. Oh I have one! A all-time favorite in China: should a girl marry the one she loves or the one that loves her? It never failed to amuse and also annoy me. 🙂

  5. I think women set themselves up for the ultimate false choice when they equate their entire salary with childcare. I understand why but at the same time, shouldn’t we count only part of two incomes as going toward childcare? My pet peeve is the false choice of staying home or working due to short maternity leaves in the U.S.! I truly think that we could make better choices if we had at least 6 months to 1 year because by that point, your child could be “done” with breastfeeding and you have recovered some sleeptime. By having to make a choice at the 3month mark, more women feel compelled to leave the work force. Believe me, it’s much harder to leave behind a 3 month old than a 1year old, even though 1 year old is still very very young.

    1. I think you’re on to something with not being separated from the baby so early, though I’d argue that being able to work from home is probably a good compromise. I think if people came back to work virtually in the fields where it is possible at 3 months, and didn’t transition back to in-office work until later (ok, ever) that could solve the problem too. I really didn’t take much time off after having any of my children. But because I could work on my own terms, and in my own house (thus seeing the kids at lunch, feeding the baby when she needed it) it was fine. Obviously this doesn’t work in all fields. If you’re a dental hygienist, you need to be where your patients are.

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