Assessing the Rationality of Our Thinking and Decision Making

When my husband and I began homeschooling our children, I developed a simultaneous interest in frugality. That is, becoming frugal was an important lifestyle component of our homeschooling endeavor, because our decision required that we change our employment such that we now had to live within much more limited means than what we had become accustomed to. Therefore, my new reading genre included titles such as, The Complete Tightwad Gazette (1998), Backyard Homesteading (2011), Living More with Less (1980), and the More-with-Less Cookbook (1976). By far, my favorite titles were the More-with-Less titles. These books were produced by folks who followed the Mennonite faith, and they offered me a unique perspective of the world, and this intrigued me and encouraged me to learn even more.

Thus, I began sourcing Mennonite and Anabaptist material to read, and I looked for a Mennonite church to attend. I subscribed to The Mennonite magazine. Although there were no local Mennonite churches, I did find that College Mennonite Church in Goshen Indiana, posted their wonderful sermons online, which I could watch at my leisure. This led to increased interest in titles such as The Upside-Down Kingdom (2011), The Ragamuffin Gospel (1990), and The Powers that Be (1998). I also heard much talk about the concepts of thinking relationally, being authentic, and acting intentionally. At that time, those ideas confused me a great deal. I wondered how it was that I might be failing in those areas. I did not even understand what those notions were supposed to mean. What I know now is that these influences introduced me to alternate worldviews, and alternate ways of being.

What I began to discover is that much of what I had taken for granted was a way of thinking and a way of living that, perhaps, dominates mainstream U.S. culture, and even much of the Western World, but it was not the only way to understand reality.  Up to that point in my life, my ideas and actions had been shaped to a very large extent by a set of sometimes-faulty assumptions. These assumptions were based in what, professor of psychology and behavioral economics, Dan Ariely, named in his New York Times best seller, Predictably Irrational (2010), “standard economics”. According to Ariely, standard economics “assumes that we are rational – that we know all the pertinent information about our decisions, and that we can calculate the value of the different options we face, and that we are cognitively unhindered in weighing the ramifications of each potential choice (Ariely, 2010, p. 317.).” In other words, we only think that we think rationally, and because of this, we tend to believe that we make logical, rational, and sensible decisions. Plus, we believe that we make our decisions based on our own self-interest. Yet this is not necessarily so.

Ariely has articulated much of what I had been absorbing through learning alternate worldviews as he described what is known as behavioral economics. Behavioral economics brings psychology and economics together in order to explain how, although ‘irrational’ behavior is a part of being human, that irrationality has a degree of predictability. Ariely argues that forces such as relativity, social norms and emotions influence our behavior and our economic decisions in ways that do not necessarily benefit us. For that reason, if we wish to make ‘good’ decisions, we should understand how these forces work. When we do, we are then able to engage in thinking relationally, being more authentic, and acting with intention. Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational (2010), described how we all sometimes tend to act irrational in very predictable ways.

In fact, rather than thinking objectively or rationally, we think and make decisions and act in relation to context. This context is by means of comparison, and we find it easier to compare similar items than items that are less alike. This is why we have difficulty, as it is said, ‘comparing apples to oranges’. We also think in terms of anchors (Ariely, 2010, p. 32.). What this means is that we may not know the ‘value’ of an item, unless we can think of it in relation to something that has a predetermined value, such a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). Then, when we compare, for example, different toasters, with their many options, and their MSRP in addition to the sale price, we presume that we know when we are getting a good deal. We know a good deal in only relation to comparisons.

Yet, sometimes, marketers who understand our decision-making processes create ‘decoys’ to aid us with our comparisons. When decoys are used, they create an arbitrary coherence to our options, and thereby direct us to purchase the item or service that will generate for them a higher profit (Ariely, p.28.). In light of this knowledge, theories of supply and demand hold less authority. Again, what we view as a ‘good deal’ can only be understood in relation to other similar items and their prices. Therefore, understanding how and why we make such comparisons can help us to prevent the downfalls that sometimes accompany such decision-making processes.

Additionally, marketers use their knowledge of how we respond irrationally to offers for free items or services. A free offer is used many times as a sales pitch. This is the marketing method used when a cell-phone service offers a ‘free phone’ with a signed contract. Ariely states that, “zero is an emotional hot button – a source of irrational excitement” (Ariely, 2010, p. 55.). When given such opportunity, based on the emotions that arise with the prospect of ‘free’, many people do not consider the actual value of the product or service that is being offered. They simply select the option that is advertised as ‘free’, perhaps costing them more in the long run. It would seem logical and rational that the free option is the best option, and this is what is many times chosen. Yet, when comparing the actual costs, we find that free, ironically, many times, costs more.

Furthermore, our decision-making processes are situated within and affected by the context of both social norms and market rules. For example, Ariely demonstrated this occurrence in the context of the offering of free candy as opposed to the offering of cheap candy. Through scientific experiments, he found that with an offer for free candy, college students self-regulated by taking only one or two pieces, and leaving enough for all to share, but if the candy offered was cheap (instead of free), people felt quite decent while ‘stocking up’, so to speak, and taking more than their fair share (Ariely, 2010, pp. 111-112). Therefore, it was demonstrated that when we are acting within social norms, we tend to limit or self-moderate our behavior, thinking of others’ wants and needs in the process. Yet, in contrast, when we act within the context of market rules, we generally feel quite comfortable justifying our behavior even if it is extreme and less socially just.

Furthermore, the acts of volunteering and reciprocity of gift giving fall under the realm of social norms, not market rules. Yet, it is important to know that if any notion of monetary value is inserted in such a social transaction, it will immediately change the relationship from one that is concerned with communal good to become one that is governed by individualistic market rules where self-interest is prized (Airely, 2010, pp. 75-102.). Therefore, it is important to understand that social norms indicate that when volunteering or gift giving, we should think of others, but if we add any notions of money those transactions market rules take over, which indicate that we should then act in our own self-interest. Consequently, understanding how the forces of social norms vs. market rules work can help us recognize how they can be used either for our benefit or else against us.

As already noted, emotions may influence decision-making, steering us away from our predetermined rational choices. To examine this idea further, Ariely conducted studies concerning the effects of sexual arousal on college men’s decision-making. He concluded that how a person thinks they will act when aroused and how they actually do act when aroused are different (Ariely, 2010, pp. 119-135.).  He surmised that other emotional situations such as anger, frustration, and hunger might potentially trigger similar effects. Thus, understanding that we may, in fact, act differently than what we presume we might, can help us to choose to avoid situations that might result in undesired outcomes, or else we might devise strategies to better protect ourselves.

An additional manifestation of irrational lack of self-control presents itself in human tendency to procrastinate. Sometimes we do not work as hard as we might in order to achieve future goals because of lack of what psychologist B.F. Skinner named “schedules of reinforcement” (c.b. Ariely, 2010, p. 159.). What this means is that if we do not provide ourselves with positive reinforcements along the path toward a larger future goal, we might not follow through on our original commitment. Instead, we may opt for more immediate rewards, that are, perhaps less rational.

Further irrationality presents itself in how we tend to think about our possessions. We regard our own possessions to be of higher value than what others estimate them to be. Ariel surmised that this might be because of the amount of work that goes into acquiring them (Ariely, 2010, p. 175.). This bias, known as the positivity bias, predisposes us to value anything related to ourselves in a very high regard (Ariely, 2010, p. 182). Therefore, it is clear that we irrationally regard our own possessions as having a higher value, and the same time regard other’s comparable possessions as having less value.

We also sometimes have an irrational tendency to keep all of our options open. This is perhaps because we are afraid of losing what we already have. Yet, if we keep all options open, too many choices may create problems, such as those of indecision or of us getting caught up in chasing “worthless choices” (Airely, 2010, p. 192.).  For that reason, the decision to keep as many options open as possible may result in the irrational choice of not attending to our priorities.

Surprisingly, how we perceive reality can, at times, distort the truth. Ariely stated that “previously held assumptions”, such as stereotypes, “can cloud our point of view” (Ariely, 2010, p. 201.). For example, we may have certain political beliefs and wish to maintain them. Therefore, we might tend to focus on information that confirms our beliefs, while at the same time disregard information that disconfirms our beliefs. In this way, our previously held assumptions are confirmed in the way that we either allow or disallow information to filter in. The result of such filtering, named cognitive dissonance, is an irrational distortion of the truth.

Another factor that tends to distort the truth is the price of an item or service. When something costs comparatively more, we tend to regard it as being of higher quality. Peoples’ preference for high-priced pain medications, for example, ‘knowing’ that they work better (even if they are a placebo) is an indication of the power of price to influence our perceptions (Ariely, 2010, pp. 231-232.). Yet, if we apply this sort of reasoning to healthcare, for example, ‘affordable healthcare’ such as generic medications, may then become less effective. Consequently, our tendency to reason that price is an indicator of quality is less than rational.

As I have discovered over the years, much of how I previously understood reality was less than logical or rational.  It was based in faulty assumptions that have perpetuated over time as they are supported in standard economic theory. These assumptions include the notion that people are rational thinkers and that they choose rationally, acting in their own self-interest. Yet, if we look to the economy and markets, even businesses and their marketers understand that humans do not always think and act in rational ways.

Marketers use persuasion techniques that influence our decision-making processes. They manipulate, by use of decoys, anchors, and pricing techniques, for example. In this way, they influence how we respond to social norms in addition to how we respond to market rules. They play on our strong emotions, our tendency to procrastinate, our preconceived notions, and our tendency to overvalue what we associate with ourselves. They also understand how we have difficulty decreasing our options, and use that to their benefit. Marketers know that we use comparisons to determine value, and they use sometimes-deceptive pricing techniques in their comparisons in order to manipulate our behavior to their benefit. Over time, and through experience and learning, we realize that deceptive techniques are being used against us. This erodes our trust and our own honesty in our dealings with others. Then the cycle of dishonesty and lack of trust grows and perpetuates.

Honesty and trust are crucial components of relationships, both socially and economically. When business practices act in ways that result in degraded trust, a societal cycle of distrust results. Social norms of lying and cheating further reinforce the notion that we should act in our own self-interest in a competitive contest of ‘getting ahead’ of one another. The result is that over time we think of ourselves more and more as being ‘independent’ and we become increasingly isolated from one another, escalating notions of ‘us against them’ social divides. Ariely, in the final chapters of his book, provided some practical ideas concerning what he believes can be done to rebuild honesty, trust and relationships. For example, he lamented the loss of professional oaths when he wrote, “The oath – spoken and often written – was a reminder to practitioners to regulate their own behavior, and it also provided a set of rules that had to be followed in fulfilling the duties of their profession” (Airely, 2010, p. 285.). Oaths served to hold professionals accountable to their actions.

This is one example, but there are many steps that each of us can take to make strong, trusting, and healthy relationships. The first of these would be to recognize that we exist within relationships, and therefore, we must think relationally. This means we must think of how our decisions and actions affect one another, and resist the temptation to think and act in the interest of getting ahead. Secondly, when we do begin to think relationally, we then naturally follow with intentional actions that build community through reciprocating acts of generous and vulnerable honesty. These combine to create authenticity and trust between people and the systems and institutions they create. As it was said in that Mennonite sermon I heard years ago, be authentic, think relationally, and act intentionally.

To summarize, curiosity and life experience has led me on a path of discovery.  This discovery has been one of living life in a way that is quite different than many of my neighbors’ lifestyles. Some may look to my way of living as rather eccentric, with my more-with-less customs that include backyard homesteading and a somewhat tightwad frugality. Yet, the upside-down gospel that I follow frees me to become more authentic.  This authenticity is realized in decisions and actions that are made in recognition to and avoidance of, whenever possible, certain false assumptions and persuasive powers. Behavioral economics explains these false assumptions and persuasive powers as the dynamics of rather predictable irrational human behavior within context of western capitalistic society.

The main tenet of behavioral economics states that we are not always the objective and rational decision-makers that we wish to believe we are.  Instead, our decisions are affected by our emotions, our tendency to procrastinate, and many cognitive biases. Additionally, we make relational and comparative decisions within the context of limited information, while simultaneously acting within a society governed by both social norms and economic and market rules. Furthermore, when our economic system reinforces notions that we should desire to compete for limited resources, rather dishonest persuasive techniques result as a means to ‘get ahead’. The result is a breakdown in the social contract and quality of life for all. We may reverse this trend by thinking relationally and acting intentionally, thereby becoming more honest and authentic both with ourselves and with others. This would result in improved wellbeing through building relationships where the focus can then be located in community wellbeing and the social good.


Ariely, D. (2010). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York. Harper Perennial.

Dacyczyn, A. (1998). The complete tightwad gazette. Villard Books.

Kraybill, D. and Sine, T. (2003). The upside-down kingdom. Herald Press.

Longacre, D. (1976). More-with-less cookbook: Suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources. Herald Press.

Longacre, D. (1980). Living more with less. Herald Press.

Manning, B. (1990). The ragamuffin gospel. Multnomah.

Toht, D. (2011). Backyard homesteading: A Back-to-basics guide to self-sufficiency. Creative Homeowner.

Wink, W. (1998). The powers that be: Theology for a new millennium. New York: Doubleday.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Freedom of Choice: Is Having Greater Choice Necessarily Better?

The ‘American Dream’: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the U.S., to a large extent, we are free to choose. For the most part, this makes us happy. It feels like freedom. For example, the options that we have in life, such as which career to pursue, where to vacation, which car to buy, and even the numerous ways in which we might choose to dress our salad can be seemingly endless. The options for my salad dressing are astounding. There is a sixty-foot aisle full of condiments in the supermarket near my home, from which to choose. This seems like a great deal of opportunity that would lead to enhanced wellbeing. Yet, I have discovered that this endless array of choice is not always better.

The idea that more choice is not necessarily better became abundantly clear to me when my husband purchased for me a new cell-phone. It was one of those smart phones. He told me that I should decide what sort of protective cover I would like and purchase one. So, I went on-line shopping. What I found was truly amazing. There were literally hundreds of choices. The choices were so many that I decided that on-line shopping was not going to serve me well. I needed to see the choices in person: To feel them, to try them on, to see how protective they really would be for my new device. Unfortunately, I discovered that it was necessary for me to drive to a store that was nearly an hour away in order to do so. Therefore, I took my new phone to work with me, intending to shop for the cover when my workday was through. Yet, I did not even get into work before my phone was knocked out of my hand and flew across the parking lot. The repair, I discovered, would cost almost as much as a new phone. I was sad about my loss.

Today, in retrospect, I can see that it was the very wide range of choice in cell phone protection that made it almost impossible for me to choose a suitable cover. I wanted ‘the best’ cover that I could get, in order to ‘protect my investment’ and this is what caused the purchase delay. Many people have an assumption that the more choices one has, the better off one is. That theory proved to be untrue for me that day!

Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that social scientists have discovered that greater choice does not necessarily translate to better wellbeing. For example, Psychologist, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice (2004) argued that although a certain degree of autonomy and freedom of choice are important to one’s wellbeing, paradoxically, too much choice creates anxiety for people (Schwartz, n.d.). He has cited psychologists David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University, writing “increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being” and that there are findings that “indicate that the explosion of choice plays an important role” in this phenomenon (Schwartz, n.d.). Too many choices then, can be a disadvantage.

The disadvantage of choice can be explained in that sometimes too many choices lead some folks to encounter difficulty in choosing between the many options available. Schwartz named two types of choosers, and he called them the “maximizers” and the “satisficers”[1]. Maximizers are the sorts of folks who like to make the best choice possible from amongst all the options available. While by comparison, satisficers are satisfied with a choice that is “good enough” regardless of other, perhaps, ‘better’ choices (Schwartz, n.d.). It is clear to me today, that in the case of shopping for my cell phone cover, I was a maximizer, as I was determined to choose the very best protection for my new device. Yet it was the quest for the best that led to my difficulty in choosing, and my subsequent loss.

Therefore, my search to find the best cover did not provide me with benefit. Instead my delay in choosing caused the loss of my gift. There are other types of loss that maximizers may also encounter. What Schwartz and his colleagues discovered through their research is that maximizers expend a great deal of energy in their decision-making process and because of this they are more “likely to make better objective choices” but, in comparison to satificers, they also get less satisfaction from the decisions that they make (Schwartz, n.d.). I surely did experience less satisfaction, as I was disappointed because of the loss of the gift, and the financial loss if I would have chosen to repair it (which I chose not to do). Yet, I was sorry, too, about the time that both my husband and I extended in researching the purchase, and the time spent thinking about the many new features this phone would provide to me. Therefore, my loss also included the loss of features that I anticipated being able to enjoy. Surprisingly, less satisfaction also comes from thinking about what could have been.

Indeed, this lesser degree of satisfaction derived from ‘best’ choices can be explained by understanding the way in which maximizers think about the ‘costs’ involved in their decision process. Choices involve comparisons, and when a choice is made, the opportunity of choosing other options no longer exists. This leaves the chooser to wonder if a different choice might have, in fact, been better. Additionally, when one has high expectations, as is the case for maximizers, the idea of lost opportunities can lead to a feeling of regret. So, too, the time spent in decision-making adds to the costs of the choosing. Schwartz cited the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky writing that losses, such as opportunity costs, have a greater psychological impact than that of gains (Schwartz, n.d.). In other words, he wrote “losses make us hurt more than gains make us feel good (Schwartz, n.d.).” When a great deal of time and energy is invested in decision-making, the costs involved in choosing ‘the best’ may result in less satisfaction overall, and this can lead to feelings of depression. This explains how objectively determined ‘best choices’ can lead to less overall satisfaction. Schwartz named this phenomenon “the tyranny of choice” (Schwartz, n.d.).

However, choice is not the only sort of paradoxical tyranny, what at first seems to be counterintuitive is the fact that we may also experience a ‘tyranny of freedom’ (Schwartz, 2000).   The tyranny of freedom can be understood in the context of our individual autonomy or what we may think of as self-determination. Schwartz has questioned the notion of self-determination asking, does it mean “determination by the self, or determination of the self, or both? (Schwartz, 2000).” This is an interesting question to consider.

Consider, then, that determination by the self would simply mean self-determined choice, or unlimited freedom to choose. Whereas determination of the self would mean choosing what sort of self one would like to be. For example, before my phone loss, the self I chose to be was a maximizer, because my objectifiably best purchase choice was determined by me. Today, I have reinvented myself, to be perhaps more of a satisficer, much more willing to choose what is good enough to serve my purpose without the need to choose ‘the best’. In this way, I have determined what sort of self I wish to be. The determination of what sort of ‘self’ I wish to be, therefore, limits my determined-by-the-self choices.

Why did I change the sort of self that I wished to be? I changed because I realized that the “unconstrained freedom” that I had in choosing a cell phone cover led to a sort of “paralysis” in my decision-making that become a “kind of self-defeating tyranny (Schwartz, 2000).” I did not choose a suitable protection because I wanted to acquire the best protection instead. Therefore, while I was still attempting to choose, the real choice that I made was a choice for absolutely no protection. This choice was very self-defeating, indeed.

Clearly, the realization of self-defeating choices leads to the understanding that constraints on my freedom to choose would have, most likely, served me better. With fewer choices, I would have had less difficulty in making a decision and would have chosen protection. Therefore, constraints on freedom to choose are not generally understood as positive, but in some circumstances, they very well may be. Perhaps this explains why cultural and social norms and what we think of as morals have developed in society. They act as guides by constraining freedoms in order to better enable members of society to make choices amidst endless possibility.

The notion that it may be better to have limited choices is contrary to what has been lauded for years, the belief in the inherent value of ‘rational choice’ as expressed in rational choice theory[2]. Contrary to the notion that humans make ‘rational choices’, it has been proven that there are many conditions of decision-making that are not entirely dependent upon rational thinking. One of these conditions is culture. According to Schwartz (2000), understanding how humans actually go about choosing “requires knowledge of the cultural institutions that influence their lives.” Furthermore, culture does shape peoples preferences, yet preference can only be understood within a limited context. What this means is that people may be able to intelligibly express preferences among limited choices, but preferences cannot be made concerning all possible choices. Schwartz asserts that it is the dominance of rational choice theory that is embedded into our economic system that influences U.S. culture such that we have erroneously come to believe that greater choice is naturally better for our wellbeing. Yet, new theories concerning how human choices are made are leading us to question the economic theories that we have trusted for generations.

Even though choices have increased for most people over time in the U.S, there is a correlation that incidents of clinical depression have increased too. Schwartz (2000) theorizes that this is perhaps because, with increased choices, people also have high expectations for perfection. Additionally, he notes, U.S. culture has become more individualistic such that people may have an expectation of being able create their version of a perfect life. Thus, unrealistic expectations based on notions of freedom of choice leave people disappointed when they do not obtain perfection. This provides us with provocative evidence that placing limits on individual freedoms might serve us well. Maybe our ancestors understood this as they developed certain morals and cultural and societal norms.

Hence, for the most part, in our individualistic society, our notions of freedom (which are perhaps an outgrowth of our capitalistic economic philosophy), which are sometimes thought of as self-determination or our unlimited ability to choose, are possibly only partially understood. Contrary to what we may assume, we do not necessarily choose among an unending array of free choices, rather we act within a set of societal and cultural norms, what we may think of as acting on our morals. One of the most prevailing morals of our contemporary society is our notion that we should exercise our unlimited freedoms, primarily expressed as our freedom of choice. Yet we may not be fully aware that acting on one set of freedoms may restrict other freedoms. What is overlooked, many times, is that because we are too busy engaging in our freedom of consumer choice that we also have a different sort of freedom. We have the freedom to choose the type person that we wish to be.

To summarize thus far, when we are engaged in determination-by-the-self, that is to say, the freedom to choose from unlimited possibility, we at the same time constrict our ability to engage in determination-of-the-self. Likewise, when we engage in determination-of-the-self, that is to say, deciding the type of person that we wish to be, we limit the possibilities of our ‘free’ choices. For that reason, when we think about our wellbeing, we should consider both of these types of freedoms and how it is that we wish to balance them.

With this understanding of the constraining nature of unlimited free choice, it is conceivable then, to think that if we intentionally limit our free choice possibilities, we can expand our personal wellbeing. This type of limit might be thought of as commitment. Schwartz named teaching this type of commitment, positive psychology, stating that,

a positive psychology will have to be willing to tell people that, say, a good, meaningful, productive human life includes commitment to education, commitment to family and to other social groups, commitment to excellence in one’s activities, commitment to virtues such as honesty, loyalty, courage, and justice in one’s dealings with others, and so on. Notice how the very notion that psychology might articulate a vision of the good life contradicts the emphasis on freedom, autonomy, and choice (2000).

Indeed, self-determined limits to personal choice can sometimes result in outcomes that are truly surprising beyond what one might have imagined.

For example, when faced with decisions about which one is unprepared to make, sometimes the choice decided is the choice of acceptance for what is. This act can transform us in profoundly unimaginable ways. This concept was brought to life in a National Public Radio (NPR) Fresh Air program, hosted by Terry Gross as she interviewed author Andrew Solomon, on the subject of his new book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (2012). In this broadcast, Solomon spoke about the experiences of parenting “profoundly different children (Parenting, 2012).” He came to the realization that what an important choice it is when familiesdecide to keep, raise and accept children who, because they are so profoundly different from the rest of their family, do not fit social norms.

In this discussion, he spoke of one family in particular who was grateful for the rewarding life experience that resulted from parenting such a profoundly ‘different’ child. He said that Tom and Karen Robards had a child with Down syndrome, and that in order to change the way education services were delivered to people with Downs, they set up the Cooke Center in NYC and spent many years dedicated to that program. Solomon questioned them, asking whether they sometimes wished that they had not had that experience, and that if they could make Downs go away, would they choose to do so? Karen replied that for her son, David, that choice would certainly make his life easier. Yet, speaking for herself, contrary to what she would have imagined thirty years prior, that the experience of having a child with Downs had made her think “so much more deeply and appreciate humanity so much more broadly and live so much more richly” that, she “wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world (Parenting, 2012.).” Therefore, when confronted with the choice between accepting (or not accepting) a child for what the child is, the simple act of acceptance, even when that child is so very different from oneself, can have unimaginable rewards. Therefore, it is clear that in that act of acceptance of others’ differences, we can learn so much more about ourselves and grow, as human beings. What is remarkable is that this growth takes place in such a way that it would otherwise not occur without that acceptance of difference.

Solomon also spoke about parents of children who were conceived that act of rape (Andrew Solomon, 2013). He said that because of the traumatic experience of rape, women will sometimes choose to terminate those pregnancies, and that they should be allowed to make that decision. Yet, he also spoke of mothers who chose to do otherwise. Choice, whichever choice a woman in such a circumstance chooses, empowers a woman to regain agency from a situation in which her rights were taken away.

Solomon also spoke about the children conceived in rape. He said that they were sometimes relieved to discover the circumstance of their conception because it explained a distant and sometimes negative feeling that they received from their mothers. Solomon also spoke of that which I had completely unexpected,

there’s a tendency for people who are in categories that are frequently faced with abortion to describe not being aborted as though it were some wonderful victory that they had achieved by riding at the head of an army on a white horse. And so there’s a resistance to abortion. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the disability community. There’s anti-abortion sentiment in the rape community (Andrew Solomon, 2013.).

It is painful for people to know that there are those who would advocate creating a society, through the use of medical techniques, in which people like them would no longer exist. Therefore, when we think about ‘our’ choices, it is important to understand that we do not live unto ourselves, and that our choices affect others too.

Solomon’s book is about parents who had children who were profoundly different from themselves or who were likely to be socially stigmatized because they had conditions such as Down syndrome, deafness, dwarfism, Downs syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, or who were prodigies, or who were conceived in rape, or who became criminals, or who were transgender. Although such life experiences were most certainly challenging, and some might advocate for ‘giving such children up’, Solomon wrote about parents who chose to keep them and raise them. These parents had accepted their children in spite of circumstances that did not fit social norms, and that others might regard as tragic.

Although the circumstances of each of these families were quite different, Solomon sees connections between all of them. Perhaps this is related to his own unique circumstance of being gay. What Solomon was studying is difference. He named this sort of human difference as ‘horizontal identity’ (Andrew Solomon, 2013.). That is, horizontal identity is an identity that is not learned and passed down from generation to generation, but rather because one is so profoundly different from other family members, he or she must learn his or her identity though peers. It was the horizontal identity of the children – that is it was their differences – that connected the families of which Solomon wrote.

Contrary to what Schwartz discovered about social norms then, is the notion that instead of there being decreased wellbeing when we accept and embrace people who identify outside of the boundaries of that which we might consider ‘normal’, we may actually enrich our lives. Schwartz analysis of choice and freedom begs the conclusion that social and cultural norms are beneficial to a society because they assist people by limiting choices, thereby increasing wellbeing. Solomon’s argument contradicts this sentiment in that marginalized and stigmatized people suffer as the consequence of the enforcement of social norms. Therefore, even in a world where, say, medical progress might allow us to have greater access to the choice to ‘eliminate’ differences that we have come to think of as somehow unacceptable because they are ‘abnormal’ or cause us difficulty and pain, we might take time to pause before we choose to do so. Yet, surely we cannot know what is best for another, and therefore we need to allow others to make the decisions that are best for them. Perhaps what we need to consider, is the types of norms that society forms and attempts to enforce.  Instead of thinking about different ‘kinds’ of people (identity norms) – after all, we are all different in some way from one another – we might instead think about norms concerning our notions of free choice and limit those for our own wellbeing.

In conclusion, too many choices may be constraining, and likewise too much freedom may be constraining too, and these constraints can limit one’s wellbeing.  Therefore, it is reasonable to think that placing limits on one’s freedom and free choice would remove constraints and enhance one’s wellbeing.  Nonetheless, choice is very important, because when options are limited, people suffer. To understand this better, it is important to consider what sort of choice one is considering. It seems that determination-by-the-self sometimes limits identity options for oneself and for others, thereby decreasing wellbeing.  While on the other hand, determination-of-the-self limits free choice.  Neither choice is totally free from limiting consequence. Understanding how these choices work in conjunction with one-another can help us to be they type of person that we wish to be.



Andrew Solomon: Love, No Matter What. (2013). (TED) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from

Parenting A Child Who’s Fallen ‘Far From the Tree’. (2012). Parenting a child who’s fallen ‘far from the tree’. (Fresh Air) [Radio]. WHYY. Author Interviews. Retrieved from

Schwartz, B. (n.d.). The tyranny of choice. Scientific American, (April, 2004), 70-75

Schwartz, B. (2000). Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom. American psychologist, 55(1), 79.

Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the tree: Parents, children and the search for identity. Simon and Schuster.

[1] Schwartz wrote that he “borrowed the term ‘satisficers’ from the late Nobel Prize–winning psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University (Schwartz, n.d.).

[2] Rational Choice Theory assumes that people always make rational choices based on “well-ordered preferences” among all possibilities, regardless of myriad influence possibilities, and as if they always have complete information about costs and benefits in order to maximize personal advantage (Schwartz, 2000).

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Storytelling: a Method to Heal from Historical Trauma

My friend, Tom DeWolf has been interviewed for a “Cities Tour” C-Span segment that is to air today, Saturday, 4/5/2014 @ 4:30 pm. EDT.  In this segment, Coming to the Table, an organization that “provides leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery,” is is prominently featured in this segment.  Tom discussed the book that he co-authored with Sharon Leslie Morgan, Gather at the Table:  The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, in which they wrote of their exploration into the “deep social wounds left by racism, violence and injustice.”  It is their hope that their work inspires “a national dialogue about the legacies of slavery and racism” and that it offers “practical guidance for individuals and groups who want to heal themselves and America” from our traumatic past.