Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Writing in prison - is choice restriction beneficial?

Tony Perrottet in the NY Times suggests that writers can be more productive inside prison than out.

Completely counter to rational choice theory, of course, but surprisingly plausible. I have several writing jobs to do myself, and though I haven't missed my deadlines yet, I absolutely recognise the seductive danger of twitter (follow me!). Jonathan Franzen apparently superglued the ethernet port on his computer to stop himself from going online. Extreme, but effective.

Rationality suggests that we can never suffer from the availability of more options - because we will always choose the one that is most beneficial to us. If choice A (e.g. using the Internet) is a worse outcome than choice B (e.g. writing another 100 words) we will pick B. If we pick A, then it means that using the Internet was better for us at that moment than writing.

So why did these writers deliberately stop themselves from being able to make choice A? Why can't we apply effective self-control by simply deciding not to go on the Internet? (of course, sometimes we can, but not all the time).

Let me advance one particular theory. We are making decisions all the time. Whether we're writing, or eating, or breathing, or walking along the street - we are continually considering the other things we could be doing. This consideration takes mental effort. The fact that I have the option of going on twitter right now is a factor in that effort.

The effort of making the choice itself reduces my ability to write. It distracts me, especially at the deep level where much creativity takes place. And so, by removing the choice, I am not only taking away one path towards happiness; I am actually changing the environment and therefore changing what my optimal choice would be.

Almost paradoxically, then - putting this in the language of rational choice - when choice A is available, it is the best choice for me to take, in utilitarian terms. But in the new cognitive environment that's created when choice A has been removed, choice A wouldn't have been the preferred option anyway.

Is this clear? Please comment, as I suspect I can make it more comprehensible - but my power is about to be turned off so I must post now.

2 comments:

Nicki said...

I'm a writer and translator who has managed to write and translate precious little over the past few months, consistently choosing to give myself wholly over to anything and everything that has distracted me.

I sure wish I could manage to do some things in my rational self interest to enhance my utility, like finding a prison or a controlling and sadistic boyfriend!

Anyway, it would seem that making the choice to remove choice A is the optimal choice all along rather than there being a new cognitive environment subsequently created wherein choice A is less desirable, no?

PunditusMaximus said...

I think a shorter way to put it is that the act of having to make and enforce a choice is inherently costly, so more choices are not trivially better.