Economists have traditionally framed decision-making as a purely rational process. You look at your available options, weigh the pros and cons, and choose the option with the greatest positive balance. In a perfect world, perhaps, this is how we would make our choices.
In our world, this model falls apart. Most of our decisions are made with an abundance of options, too little information, and too much uncertainty. When I write a verse, I have created one new option I can compare against other possible verses. Yet I have a virtually unlimited number of other possible options: all the possible verses I didn’t write. It isn’t possible to evaluate my actually-written verse accurately against all the potential other options.
Genres, personal style, and songwriting conventions go a long way towards limiting our number of possible options. And we can further limit that number by working only with verses we’ve actually created. But as creators, we will always know we could create a few more options. This is a huge temptation, and it’s one that leads to songs being written over years and albums being produced over decades.
But even when we’re limited to the set of ideas we’ve already created, we run into a deep-set problem: humans are terrible at making decisions when there are too many choices.
How many choices are “too many”?
Surprisingly few. In a set of now-famous experiments, researchers set up a stand in a grocery store selling varieties of jams and gourmet chocolates. When they offered 6 choices, shoppers chose more quickly, purchased more of the products, and rated their satisfaction with their choices higher than when the researchers offered 24 or 30 choices.
This experiment went a long way towards proving we often can’t use the pure rational model in the real world. The rational model predicts we should always want more options. That’s because if the new options are worse than our current options, we can disregard them. If they’re better, then we can accept them as our new best options. But what actually happens is we’re quickly overwhelmed by choices and become incapable of making the best decision.
Our ability to evaluate each choice declines (there’s less time to spend on each); our chances of making the best decision decline (in the study, it fell from 1/6 to 1/24 or 1/30); and we become more tired and prone to errors ourselves. The end result: a poorer decision.
The rational model is also called “maximizing”. In other words, we seek the very best option of all possible options. When there are few enough options, this strategy is the best solution. But when writing music, there are often hundreds or thousands of options when we make decisions. Maximizing quickly becomes inefficient and exhausting.