Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Buridan’s Ass

December 6th, 2006 · 1 Comment

When I was six, the most difficult choice I had to make was which piece of candy to spend my weekly allowance of fifty cents on. It may seem inconsequential today, but I was reminded of the agony this decision posed for me as I watched my two young kids trick or treat at Halloween.
It was an important decision back then. Most likely, the candy that I would buy would be the only candy I would have access to over the next week. Candy didn’t grow on trees in our house. There were lots of factors to consider: how many pieces of candy were in each package? Should I go for the cheap individually wrapped candies (bubble gum, bite size candy bars, etc) and end up with a variety, or go with a large package of only one type of candy? An oversized candy bar, called the “Big Block” had been introduced recently. It was fifty cents – a fortune for a single piece of candy back then. It was a huge chunk of chocolate and frequently tempted me sorely. Or I could go with a regular candy bar (thirty-five cents) and pick up a couple of small items to round out the selection.

It was a torturous decision for me. I would spend a half an hour trying to decide what to buy every single week. There were so many choices, and all of them were equally good. So why didn’t I just pick one and stop wasting time? I liked everything in the candy aisle back then, even Skor. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just grab a handful of anything and head back home?


I recently learned that six year olds aren’t the only ones who have a hard time choosing between equally good choices. Buridan’s ass and technology professionals have the same problem.

Before you think I’m talking about some guy’s butt, let me explain. Buridan’s ass is actually a paradox named after a 14th century French philosopher named Jean Buridan. Here’s the general idea: a completely rational ass, placed exactly between two equally large and delicious bales of hay will starve to death. Why? Because there is no substantial difference between the two choices that compel him to choose one or the other.
As ludicrous as the paradox of Buridan’s ass might seem, examples of this type of behavior in people of all ages are commonplace, particular in professionals. Consider the following situation: A problem needs to be solved and there are three possible solutions to the problem. Each potential solution has the same result, but each varies in substantial ways. There are no clear advantages to any one solution, but each is favored by a different member of the team that must choose a solution. How do you expect the team to behave?
The team could literally simply flip a coin in this situation and move on. This rarely happens without the intervention of an outsider. Why? It’s simple – the people involved can’t tell the difference between different and better. The mere fact that the solutions are very similar in outcome makes it hard to decide between them and those involved begin looking for distinguishing features in the minute details of the solution.


Avoid this problem by staying aware of the pace of decision-making. Any time progress stalls to debate an issue, ask yourself if the differences between the options are really that substantial. If any one of the proposed solutions will accomplish the desired result, take yours off the table and lend your support to one of the other solutions. Or simply point out that you see all of the solutions as being equally viable and suggest some way of selecting the solution in a different context, such as which solution is easiest to explain to others or is most favored by your superiors.

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