Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How to make up your mind

In the last several years, when inviting friends to a dinner party, I have often received the response "I don't know." Not "I don't know, I have to ask my whoever and get back to you," just "I don't know." Sometimes it's weeks before hearing a definitive answer. One potential guest said she couldn't tell us because her husband was out of town on the date of the party and did we want her to come alone or not? Why must I make that decision for her, I wondered. So I was interested to read John Tierney's article in today's Science Times entitled The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors.

Xiang Yu was a Chinese general in the third century B. C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making. He crushed his troops' cooking pots and burned their ships.

He explained this was to focus them on moving forward.

Evidently this story is taken from Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational which is on its way to me right now. Ariely is a behavioral economist from M. I. T. and studies decision making. I'm excited to read his new book which has been excerpted all over the place, but to return to today's science story, it speaks to the difficulty subjects in an experiment have in limiting their options, even when that exacts a price. So maybe it's not just our friends. I wonder if it's a generational thing. I don't remember it being so difficult to have a dinner a my house twenty years ago. Or maybe it's being at a stage in our lives when we and our friends are older and busier with kids and work. I'm curious how varied in age and culture the experiment's subjects were. Is this inability to limit our options really universal?

Makes me think of the Saga of Jenny
Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Jenny made her mind up when she was three
She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree
Christmas Eve she lit the candles, tossed the tapers away
Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas day

Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
She lost one dad and mother, a sister and a brother,
But she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up when she was twelve
That into foreign languages she would delve
But at seventeen to Vassar, it was quite a blow
That in twenty-seven languages she couldn't say no
Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
To Jenny I'm beholden, her heart was big and golden
But she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up at twenty-two
To get herself a husband was the thing to do
She got herself all dolled up in her satins and furs
And she got herself a husband--but he wasn't hers

Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
Deserved a bed of roses, but history discloses
That she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up at fifty-one
She would write her memoirs before she was done
The very day her book was published, history relates,
There were wives who shot their husbands in some thirty-three states

Jenny made her mind up at seventy-five
She would live to be the oldest woman alive
But gin and rum and destiny play funny tricks,
And poor Jenny kicked the bucket at seventy-six
Jenny points a moral with which you cannot quarrel,
Makes a lot of common sense--
Jenny and her saga prove that you're gaga
If you don't keep sitting on the fence

Jenny and her story point the way to glory
To all man and womankind
Anyone with vision comes to this decision--
Don't make up your mind


Sheila O'Malley said...

I love that Jenny song!!

You know - I've noticed something: when I was a kid, my parents got a babysitter at least once a month, and would go out with friends - play bridge, go out to dinner, whatever grown-ups did. Babysitters were a HUGE part of my childhood. I've noticed with my friends who are parents now - getting a babysitter is just not as commonplace. I have one friend whose kids are teenagers who has NEVER gotten a babysitter. There's a reluctance in this particular generation (and I am hugely generalizing) to leave the kids OUT of grown-up affairs. Which is why you see little kids out at fancy restaurants - and you go to an R rated movie and idiots have brought their babies ...etc. etc.

Getting a babysitter now is almost like appointing a new Supreme Court judge, or something - as opposed to just asking the nice teenaged girl down the block to watch the kids for the night.

Couples don't go OUT anymore after they have kids ... or if they do, it is rare rare rare. One person goes out, and the other stays home with the kids.

I don't know - just something I've observed in my own circle of friends.

There's a larger issue, I think - you know, you hear stories about parents renting apartments on the campus where their kid is going to school ... and then there was a piece this week in the NY Times about how kids are no longer anxious to get their drivers licenses - mainly because Mom and Dad are so used to chauffeuring them around (the decline in kids using schoolbuses, etc.)

I don't know - I think it's all related. My parents would be able to make plans as a couple - a month ahead of time - "Okay - we're going out to hear the Chieftains in Providence next month - let's get the babysitter lined up ..." And that just doesn't seem to happen as much nowadays.

Ted said...

I sang back up for it once in a benefit for Clavis! That's interesting regarding couples. I know couples who do but I think that's probably more true than it used to be. I wonder if it's anxiety about the world or a different way of raising kids or that we know fewer people with income for childcare than our parents did?

Sheila O'Malley said...

I have Julie Andrews singing it in on my iPod - it's awesome!!

I definitely think things are different now for parents - the price for babysitters is way higher - so a simple night out to the movies suddenly costs 100 bucks!!

I also think our particular crowd may not be representative because of our urban environment.

Anonymous said...

It used to be "the more people, the more fun", but now I refuse to exchange comfort with the drama that entails when nobody can give me a solid answer as to whether they will show up or not.

My circle of friends aren't really parents so they have no worries of domestic issues. Still some of them couldn't make up their mind if they would come for Sunday brunch. It's frustrating.