When I was in college, I claimed to have invented a Psychology Theory of Everything—a framework so comprehensive that it would reconcile every principle of psychology from the bystander effect to the paradox of choice to the confirmation bias into a single elegant model. Here’s the theory: People avoid doing what they believe others would perceive as the result of an arbitrary decision. By arbitrary decision, I mean a choice selected without clear reason from among a pool of options that all look rather similar in appeal to an outside observer. If someone could exclaim, “that’s so random!” in response to your action, my theory is you’d want to avoid that.
What originally got me thinking about this was when, as a Penn student, I saw someone wearing a Penn sweatshirt in a random Bay Area suburb I was visiting. I felt compelled to say hi to that person then. Because, wow! Another Penn kid in this kind of random town here on the west coast. But then, the thought occurred to me, if I had seen that same person wearing that same sweatshirt on Penn’s campus or even in midtown Manhattan, I obviously wouldn’t accost them with a greeting.
I think most people can relate to this kind of situation. What is it about seeing a fellow fish out of water that makes us want to bond, I wondered? And what is it about seeing fish in a sea of fish that makes us afraid to choose any one fish at all?
If the population of people among whom to say “hi” is one, and I do say hi to that person, then that’s not arbitrary at all. But if they’re one among many, and I’ve approached them at random, then I must explain myself. That is our collective fear and, I dare say, the driving force behind everything we do and decide.
I think people choose careers that their parents chose or that their friends choose because picking from the countless other possible jobs would be ultimately…arbitrary and thus more plausibly incorrect. You know how when you give someone a non-standard time (“What time should we meet?” “How’s 4:41pm?”) they say, “That’s oddly specific!” In the scheme of things, 4:41 is as arbitrary as 5pm on the dot; I don’t owe you an ounce of conformity to the blessed land of non-arbitrary decisions.
Anyway, maybe give my theory some thought. I do feel there’s something there, something generalizable with regards to human psychology and I haven’t read a single Psych principle that addresses this specifically as a potentially unifying theme among many principles that have been studied.