Binary Selection and the Tyranny of “Good, Better, Best”

Last time you pulled up to a gas pump, you had to make a choice. That choice consisted of 87% with ethanol, Regular, or Premium. It’s a choice you’ve made thousands of times. In fact, far beyond the gas pump, you’re asked to make that very same kind of “good, better, best” decision over and over again, whether you’re picking airplane seats or breakfast cereal.

It seems to make sense: in a fast-changing world where the options seem to multiply every day, there is something comforting about “good, better, best” as an easy navigation tool. Your brain adapted so well to this strategy, it’s likely you don’t even think about it. It’s just another heuristic, just another way the brain conserves energy by employing a rule of thumb that spares you from thinking too hard. Why not bring it into the cereal aisle?

Marketers hit upon this tactic years ago. It seems like a hugely successful move for anyone who wants to take advantage of the brain’s natural tendency towards fuel conservation, or as it’s sometimes known, “laziness.”

There’s only one problem: your brain operates on a binary system. Like a laptop computer, it’s only designed to select between this or that. Some scientists believe this either/or system comes from harnessing our fight or flight mechanism for decision-making.

Couple that with the fact that your brain doesn’t have the RAM to scan many prospects simultaneously like Superman. In other words, when you are presented with a multiple choice situation, your brain can only sort the information by comparing just two options at a time, and then eliminating one. It repeats this simple strategy over and over again until you’ve worked your way through all the offerings before you.

This is precisely what optometrists do when you undergo the exam to determine the strength of your new lenses. “Can you see better through this or that?” they ask again and again as they shepherd you through a long string of binary choices. It’s amazingly efficient. From dozens and dozens of possibilities, you can find the right lens in a matter of minutes. Imagine the alternative, if instead they laid out twenty or thirty lenses on a table and asked you to determine which worked best for you. Think about the glucose your brain would expend trying to pull off that feat.

All of which, of course, brings us back to “good, better, best.” When your brain drops into that heuristic, a curious thing happens. Without deliberation, for many people the natural tendency is to think, ‘Well, I don’t want the worst one, and I don’t want the most expensive. Middle option it is.’ It feels like the savvy, responsible thing to do. “Good, better, best” automatically biases you towards “better.”

It’s called the “Goldilocks rule”: not too big, not too small, but just right. But what if the bargain bin option is actually of better quality? What if paying the extra money for the pricier version is worth it in the long run? When your brain slips into heuristic mode, it runs that bit of neural code without deliberation. That’s the beauty of it—and that’s also how it can get you into trouble.

Binary selection has been around since the dawn of humanity. There is something breathtakingly elegant about the brevity of this vs that. It doesn’t resign your decision-making to status quo; consciously using binary selection to weigh many choices will yield less biased results. Keep in mind: marketers have an agenda. Don’t be fooled by the “good, better, best” approach.

Better isn’t always best.

Falling Apples and the Rise of Domain Knowledge

What is the most practical method for generating creativity? Despite our growing understanding of those neural processes, that question haunts every scientist, writer, artist, filmmaker, athlete, inventor, and any other person hoping to make something great.

Much has been written about the connection between creativity and what’s called the default network: the mental mechanisms associated with mind wandering and daydreaming. The default network is the soup de jour. This might be because there is something inherently alluring about the idea of epiphany, that bolt-out-of-the-blue inspiration seen as the mind fruit of spontaneous genius.

What doesn’t get as much airtime is the role of domain knowledge—that is, the breadth and depth of your familiarity with a given field, including the contents of your associative memory and the sum total of your practice regime.

One of the best-known epiphany stories occurred around 1666 when Sir Isaac Newton was allegedly conked on the head by a falling apple, thus triggering a revelation on the nature of gravity. Here’s some slightly lesser-known context: by 1666, Newton was a master of Euclidean geometry, algebra, and Cartesian coordinates. Oh, also he’d invented calculus, which he needed so he could measure planetary orbits. “In other words,” writes Nancy C. Andreasen in ‘Secrets of the Creative Brain,’ “Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration…”

Newton might not have been the first person to be beaned in the skull by an apple. But it’s possible he was the first person whose entire career had prepared him to fully grasp the principles behind the falling fruit.

Similarly, Einstein’s famous thought experiments were more than idle fancies; they were grounded in his expertise in physics. There’s a reason Darwin’s breakthroughs came in biology and not, say, dance. It’s the same reason Carole King’s creative flights of fancy were able to bring us “You’ve Got a Friend” in 1971; she had been playing the piano since she was four, and writing songs for thirteen years.

There’s no way around it: for true creative achievement, you need to do your homework. You need to log your hours.

Lin Manuel-Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton is the talk of Broadway, but composing it required seven years of drafting, revising, and exhaustive research—not to mention a lifelong immersion in hip hop and musical theater.

Having an enormous library of information and expertise helps you build out the novel connections between ideas that we see as creativity. It doesn’t guarantee that great works will certainly follow, but for those of us who enjoy the experience of trying to bring something new into the world, it appears restocking your brain’s memory is a prerequisite.

So was Steve Jobs really a creative genius, the visionary techno-wizard of Palo Alto who, with a wave of his hand summoned from thin air the Mac, iPhone, iPod, and iPad? Or is it more likely he built a powerful associate brain in a field he was passionate about, surrounded himself with like-minded experts, and lived out Daniel Kahneman’s formula for success (hard work + luck)?

This rewrite on the classic headline may not move as many papers. A bolt from the blue is much catchier than a bolt that sprang from decades of careful groundwork. But in the end, it doesn’t diminish what Jobs, or any other master of their domain, has brought us.

Einstein’s Thought Experiments, or, Cinema for the Mind

When he was in his early teens, Albert Einstein received a gift from a family friend: a series of illustrated science books with the catchy title of Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbucher (People’s Books on Natural Science), by Aaron Bernstein. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson quotes Einstein as having later described it as “a work which I read with breathless attention.”

In the first volume of Bernstein’s popular science series, he asked the reader to imagine a bullet shot through the window of a fast-moving train. Bernstein postulated that anyone examining the bullet’s exit on the opposite side of the train would conclude the bullet must have been shot at an angle.

Bernstein’s point was that, because the earth is hurtling through space, light would exhibit the same refracting properties going through a telescope lens as the bullet passing through the train windows. And that this outcome would always be the same regardless how fast the source of the light was traveling.

Bernstein wrote, “Since each kind of light proves to be exactly of the same speed, the law of the speed of light can well be called the most general of all nature’s laws.” (I think we can all agree Einstein went on to do a pretty good job chasing down this idea.)

In a later volume, Bernstein had his readers imagine the effects of traveling through space as a passenger on a wave of light. At sixteen, a young science nerd like Einstein was fascinated by these creative challenges. In retrospect, we can see the seeds of Einstein’s famous ‘thought experiments,’ where he meditated on complicated physics problems through striking visualizations.

This was partly out of necessity, given the limitations of turn of the century technologies. It was difficult to conduct literal experiments in the burgeoning field of physics prior to nuclear accelerators. Especially since manipulating a solar system ‘under lab conditions’ was and is a pretty tall order for even the brightest and most determined physicist.

Taking advantage of the basal ganglia’s ability to run simulations, and the brain’s inherent visual strengths (remember, 50% of brain activity appears to be devoted to decoding images), Einstein eventually found himself applying Bernstein’s approach to some of the toughest physics problems of his day.

In essence, this allowed Einstein to watch a movie version of the physics problem as it played out in his head. And the beauty of this technique was that he had the power to edit, readjust, and rerun the footage over and over as he sought to uncover the underlying principles of space and time. Before the days of particle accelerators and NASA telescopes, Einstein was already making use of the best tools nature had to offer.

There was, however, one small problem: his thought experiments might go off without a hitch inside his own mind, but he still had to demonstrate the results to the greater scientific community.

To prove one of the tenets of his Theory of General Relativity, that light bends when it passes near a very heavy body, Einstein used not a lab but a total solar eclipse. When the moon passes in front of the sun, the moon shields some of the sun’s intensity, allowing us to observe distant stars, and to measure their light for refraction. Luckily for Einstein, in May of 1919, English astronomer Arthur Eddington agreed to travel to the Island of Principe off the west coast of Africa to take telescopic photographs of stars during an upcoming eclipse.

From Einstein’s point of view, Eddington’s task couldn’t have been more simple: to demonstrate that starlight would be bent by the warped space around the sun’s mass. In reality, Eddington risked life and limb, and given the weather conditions, was barely able to snag the needed photographic evidence. But Eddington got the needed shots, and his subsequent calculations proved out Einstein’s theory and turned him into the intellectual rock star he still is today, nearly 100 years later.

In 1945, French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard asked Einstein to describe the essence of his thought experiments. Einstein replied with the following letter:

My Dear Colleague: 

In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken. 

(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. 

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others. 

(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will. 

(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for. 

(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned. 

(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).

In other words, it seems that Einstein’s thought experiments, or self-described ‘combinatory play,’ started with a concept and then proceeded to the mental movie adaptation, with subtitles as generally an afterthought. This was pretty much the winning Hollywood formula in the years before ‘talkies’ took over.

The difference? Einstein’s brand of ‘mind cinema’ has never ceased to amaze, even a century later.