February 28, 2007

Free Will and Would You Rather

I love the discussions that pop up in the “Would You Rather” threads, but yesterday I realized that some of the questions leave out more than others, and it has to do with the sort of situations they involve.

Some questions are like this: Would you rather have green feet or blue hands?

The assumption is that something has happened to you that has colored your hands or feet. In this case, we might want to know if the coloring is permanent or will eventually wash off, because longer term implications sometimes make a difference. Not specifying how long the color lasts will likely result in my readers speculating on that and saying things like “Well, if it was only going to last a day, I’d choose hands because of X. But if it were permanent I’d choose feet because of Y.” And that may be an interesting assessment that I never thought of, which is the fun of “Would You Rather” for me.

However, some questions have an even bigger ambiguity built in.

“Would you rather hit someone in the face or insult somebody’s mother?”

What the heck does this question mean? Does it want me to think about the actual mechanics of these actions? Would I rather make violent physical contact with someone’s face vs. uttering some words? That’s one interpretation — but on the immediate physical level there is little comparison, unless this is meant to determine whether you just like hitting people in the face.

Most likely you’re going to think “why am I hitting someone in the face?”

I asked the “would you rather” questions from a naïve standpoint. When I ask these questions, I rarely think too much about them beforehand except to imagine whether they would produce any sort of a split. (Lots of disagreement is good for discussion, although an entrenched minority opinion often produces more heat) Because of the naïve approach, I imagined that you suddenly found yourself, arm flinging, about to impact someone’s face. As if some alien force controlled you and put you into that situation. That’s not an easy place for many people to imagine themselves. They want a reason. Plus, it takes away free will.

This doesn’t make it a bad question, but people want to put the question into a context. So they’re naturally compelled to explore the events leading up to punching someone. If you reduce the question to “you find yourself about to hit someone in the face” then you’re really analyzing the consequences of your act. It’s probably more interesting to assume some events leading up to the event.

Does this ambiguity produce too large a split in the way different people are going to interpret the question? I could ask “Would you rather eat sand or steal from a poor family?” You might say “I just wouldn’t do that” (about stealing). So, to even fathom it you have to change the question to justify your act. None of us have ever had the experience of a supernatural force inhabiting our body and making us do things, and is that even interesting?

What do you think?

Posted by James at February 28, 2007 8:12 AM
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To do the "would you rather" without free will, we have to imagine that we have amnesia, or that we have been disembodied and dropped into a body that has performed the action we would "never" perform.

OTOH, much good literature begins with an unthinkable act, and by the end of the book (or movie), you understand exactly what you've seen, and if the book was written well, might even empathize with the character you thought was despicable at first.

Perhaps if we could put ourselves into the position of the character at the beginning of the story. You've done this unthinkable act, and now you have to live with it because nobody's going to read the book (which is all backstory), to figure out how you got there. You're just there. Forget about how you got there, nobody cares. Nobody's going to listen to your explanation. It just is -- proceed forward.

Posted by: Maggie at February 28, 2007 10:03 AM

The questions are always really interesting. I may have told you this before, but we alkways discuss these around the dinner table on the day you post them - it's really interesting to hear the Horsemen discuss and see how they go about deciding.

I like the questions, I think the discussions are really interesting, too. For those who just answer the question, that's interesting. To read the answers from those who agonize, that's interesting, too.

In other words, what Maggie said.

Posted by: Cindy at February 28, 2007 11:05 AM

Of course, anybody who's sufficiently creative and on the ball can come up with a story that makes somebody's WYR answer look ridiculous. I'm going to pick on Chuck in the last one because he's probably too exhausted from his pneumonia to put up his dukes. ;-) Jes' kidding -- you know I love you, Chuck.

I'm going to pick on Chuck because he'll be nice to me.

Your child has been hit by a car. You can ride with her in the ambulance to the hospital, where your wife is going to meet you, but that will make you ten minutes late for your presentation. You decide to drive to the presentation instead, even though she's terrified and screaming her head off, "Daddy, daddy, don't leave me!" because people had paid to see your presentation. "Sorry, honey, people paid for Daddy's presentation."

You can always make up a backstory where one side is more appealing (or appalling) than the other. It probably does make more sense for us to forget any backstory and focus on all possible situations that could happen as a result of the decision.

Posted by: Maggie at February 28, 2007 11:21 AM

It depends. For the sake of discussion, the openness is nice. And, of course, we can do both.

In the past I have made some questions more explicit, not for the sake of corralling discussion, but rather for the sake of trying to find some balance where people would more reasonably be able to disagree.

Reasonable people disagreeing is the most fun. It's not nearly as much fun to watch unreasonable people disagree. And, it's a lot easier to find those discussions.

I'm not proposing a specific change in the way I ask questions, but thinking about the discussions helps me to come up with future questions.

I do have an actual question for people:

Do you prefer choosing between 2 good things, or 2 bad things, or doesn't it matter? In real life, of course, you'd rather choose between two good things because something good is going to happen. But maybe choosing between bad things is more motivating? Or less?

Chuck said "I've stayed out of this one" and in the past I've gotten the feeling he didn't like the "2 bad choices" questions, and I was wondering if the negative choices are a turnoff.

But if you've thought about it at all, and you know me, you should be able to figure out the geeky reason why I have more often given you 2 bad choices. Anyone? Yeah, it's the Kobayashi Maru. (If you had to click that link to make sense of this paragraph, you just spent some geek karma. If you clicked it because you want to know if Wikipedia got it right and are prepared to correct them, you're an uber-geek.)

Two good choices can be fun, too, but I like the no-win situation. Does it make any difference to you folks? Do you prefer one over the other? Do you just prefer interesting choices?

Posted by: James at February 28, 2007 11:36 AM

(BTW - by invoking the "Kobayashi Maru" I don't mean to say that I am testing your character. I only mean that those questions often present no good options and you are discussing how you approach the problem even though the situation is not desirable, and so it is the discussion and not the outcome which is most interesting. Feel free to criticize the comparison.)

Posted by: James at February 28, 2007 11:42 AM

I don't criticize. I'm going to say that everybody who picked "late flight" is like Kirk and reprogrammed the simulation, violating the spirit of the question. LOL. You Kirks, you.

I think they're funny either way, good/good or bad/bad, and of course, there's sometimes bad in the good (win the lottery, lose your friends) and good in the bad (miss her flight,Patti gets to have a mini-vacation at the expense of her company and/or the airline).

Posted by: Maggie at February 28, 2007 11:48 AM

I don't think we reprogrammed it at all, just read the question differently. Overnight delay on a business trip means to me "Comfortable in a hotel". I didn't automatically assume stuck in an airport or on a runway.

It says I missed the flight. Not that the flight was stuck on a runway or I was being detained at the airport.

Even in Julie's worst case of being "stuck in Newark" overnight I would do whatever i could to get into New York for the night (does the subway /train run to Newark? I bet it does.)

I think you're right that the James thought the spirit of the question was both were negative but that's because he saw an overnight delay as a negative, for any number of reasons not the least of which is he has kids to get back to. For me I always try to look at any business travel as at least a mini vactaion from work so being "stuck" an extra day would be a positive. Even better if the next day is a work day and I can't get in. Maybe I'll even miss out on giving my presentation completely, darn.

So my choice was between a positive and a negative. Gee that's tough.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at February 28, 2007 1:04 PM

by the way. I'm going to choose punch someone in the face because I'm going to assume they deserve it and I can get away with it or I wouldn't be contemplating it.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at February 28, 2007 1:06 PM

This is why I love my husband (for both posts).

Posted by: Patti M. at February 28, 2007 1:12 PM


(What would Kirk do?)

Be sure to get your shirt ripped and use the back of your hand to wipe away the little dribble of blood at the corner of your mouth, Bob. ;-)

Posted by: Maggie at February 28, 2007 1:22 PM

Green feet.

Punch stranger or insult someone's mother: the thing is, the stranger could just as easily be someone's mother as well. So there's just not enough information here.

With a question like that, I've never assumed that there was a "supernatural force" involved, exactly, just either some crazy person threatening to drown a sack of adorable puppies if I don't comply, or a whole backstory I have to make up. But I usually assume the two choices are related in some way.

Eat sand vs. steal from a poor family? Depends. Am I even poorer than the poor family? I'd be more included to take an honest approach and offer to do some work for the family in exchange for the food, but sand really isn't edible and I doubt I'd try. If those are truly my only choices, sorry poor family, but hopefully they aren't subject to the same unreasonable decision that I am. I'll pay 'em back later.

"None us have ever had the experience of a supernatural force inhabiting our body and making us do things, and is that even interesting?"

Not to me, but then, I never imagined a supernatural force was involved because I don't believe in them. I've always tried to come up with a scenario that made the choice plausible (even if it's just a lunatic with a sack of adorable puppies down by the river).

Posted by: Julie at February 28, 2007 2:29 PM

More INCLINED. Sorry. I'm sick.

Posted by: Julie at February 28, 2007 2:30 PM

Sorry to hear it, Julie.

But I bet you'd rather be sick for a while than have that lunatic drown that sack of puppies.

Posted by: James at February 28, 2007 2:34 PM

Depends on the nature of the illness. If we're talking about today's tummyache, then yes. If we're talking about an illness that causes me to hear a 7-second snippet of a Britney Spears hit playing over and over for 6 weeks, followed by a painful death, then it's goodbye to the cute puppies.

Posted by: Julie at February 28, 2007 2:37 PM

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