As the cliche goes, “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same.”

David Brooks has an excellent column on the way texting has influenced dating. It is based on an even more interesting article by Wesley Yang in New York magazine.  The magazine has been posting sex diaries of New Yorkers online.  There is a wealth of information and here is one snippet, a quote by a Diarist followed by an implication of his predicament:

12:32 p.m. I get three texts. One from each girl. E wants oral sex and tells me she loves me. A wants to go to a concert in Central Park. Y still wants to cook. This simultaneously excites me—three women want me!—and makes me feel odd.

This is a distinct shift in the way we experience the world, introducing the nagging urge to make each thing we do the single most satisfying thing we could possibly be doing at any moment. In the face of this enormous pressure, many of the Diarists stay home and masturbate.

Technology has taken paradoxes of choice to a new level of frequency but the essential idea remains unchanged.   It is the paradox created by Buridan’s Ass – I should hasten to add that this is an animal not a body part.  The poor Ass, faced with a choice of which of two haystacks to eat, cannot make up its mind and starves to death.  The option the Ass “chose” may seem less pleasurable than the option that comes to hand to the diarists but the point is the same: a decision maker facing a wealth of great choices cannot make up his mind and ends up with a poorer default option.

The paradox has important implications for choice theory.  I first learned about one possible implication from Amartya Sen many years ago.   Sen’s point was that the revealed preference paradigm beloved of economists does not fare well in the Buridan’s Ass example.  The Ass through his choice reveals that he prefers starvation over the haystacks and hence an observer should assign higher utility to it than the haystacks.  Sen,  if I remember correctly (grad school was a while ago!), says this interpretation is nonsense and an observer should take non-choice information into account when thinking about the Ass’s welfare.

A second interpretation is offered by Gul and Pesendorfer in their Case for Mindless Economics.  Who are we to say what the Ass truly wants?  To impute our own theory onto the Ass is patronizing.  Maybe the Ass is making a mistake so its choices do not reflect its true welfare.   But we can never truly know its preferences so we should forget about determining its welfare.  This story works a little better with the masturbation scenario than the Buridan’s Ass example.  This view is a work in progress with researchers trying to come up with welfare measures that work when decision makers commit errors.

So, we have no final answer and maybe we never will.  Aristotle first discussed the paradox of choice the modern want-to-be-promiscuous texter faces.  It is easy to give advice to all such asses (“make up your mind already!”) but if they continue to choose indecision how can we ever reach an unambiguous conclusion as to their welfare?  The more things change, the more they stay the same.