The Friday Read #2: The Paradox of Options

Jonah Lehrer  (The Frontal Cortex) reviews a paper by Bahns, Pickett and Crandall on the relationship between social ecology (the make up of a community and its characteristics) and how people initiate and maintain relationships. They surmise that a bigger pool only makes us more picky, and keener to gravitate to people similar to us (the so called Similarity-Attraction effect).

The cliff notes version?

When opportunity abounds, people are free to pursue more narrow selection criteria, but when fewer choices are available, they must find satisfaction using broader criteria.

Perhaps LightherLamp put it more elegantly a few days ago. Full text of the paper here.

11 thoughts on “The Friday Read #2: The Paradox of Options

  1. too true… ask any single woman over 35 who still wants to get married. all of a sudden, criteria moves from "is he from a 5-mile radius from my home village? of a certain strata? and a cross between Adonis and Idris Elba?" becomes "does he have his own teeth?"… (i jest, i jest)


  2. Agreed. Single women starts to panic right around the 35-40 range, this as results of feeling that their prospects and marketability is diminishing.

    As a


  3. This is why as a Christian there is only one criteria for having relationships, love. It can be hard, but it won't matter if you have a small or larger pool to draw from.

    Yesterday, I was in the midst of 45yrs + women, two of whom had no partners, one never married, the other, divorced. They all agreed that the older you get the more fussy you become about choosing a partner. I'm not sure if them being, white and British had to do with it. However from my view, it seems it fits into the cyclical nature of life.
    18-30, large pool
    30-45, small pool
    45-70, large pool
    70-100, small pool
    To choose from.


  4. I saw "Opposites don't attract" headline and I was all set to disagree on the obvious generalization, but reading the actual commentary put it in context. It's a classic big-city problem. New Yorkers, for example, tend to hang around other New Yorkers with similar interests. This is not to suggest that said New Yorkers did not actively seek out a more diverse set of friends – on the contrary, they (we) did, and simply found it much simpler and less stressful to maintain the relationships with the ones we gel'd with.

    I think the smaller pool (and fewer choices) really only forced people to mingle with others with different backgrounds. After all, it's not everyone who likes brunch that I can automatically be friends with. 🙂


    1. Lehrer's argument – and he references a few other studies in his review – is that the difficulties and work involved in having a more diverse group of friends pay off in the long run, and that people ought to more actively seek diversity in their friendships.

      I agree with the general conclusions of the study by Bahns et al. What I do not necessarily agree with is the conclusion that more choice equals more similarity. The underlying need the choice is filling seems to me to be an important factor – your brunch example is one where more options would most likely lead to connecting with someone similar. If however I were looking for an activity partner around town, I would be more likely to go with someone whose social life was several orders of magnitude more interesting.


  5. Jaycee elegant.
    Another pedestrian saying that encapsulates this study ' when the desirable becomes unavailable, the available becomes desirable'.

    Since this knowledge is so commonsensical, what did the research prove?


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