Even before the tech boom, my husband, Dan, had a hard time making decisions. Now that he's armed with a cell phone and an Internet connection, even something as simple as choosing a restaurant for dinner with friends can become a drawn-out series of texts, tweets, e-mails, and phone calls that ends with no resolution and a lamely uttered, "Let's talk again later." Too often we are still trying to hammer out details when everyone is in their cars driving aimlessly, in need of a destination. I find this maddening. On the other hand, when he's telling a story I've already heard at least 100 times, I'm not above checking in on my social network to stave off boredom.
So much human interaction happens these days with a tech assist that I worry we are turning into a bunch of self-centered, noncommittal—not to mention distracted—individuals. I mean, seriously, is it necessary to crowd-source every dinner decision? Is it rude to check Facebook when you're out to lunch with a friend? And from a bigger-picture perspective, where is the line between public and private?
According to a 2009 Intel study, 80 percent of online U.S. adults believe there are unspoken rules about mobile technology usage—and 69 percent agree that violations are unacceptable. But what are the rules? When does "fun" cross into "gone too far"? I decided to ask experts for the lowdown.
According to Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Home and at Work (Harper), advances in technology have made seemingly benign behaviors—like my husband's aforementioned indecision—a problem. Ariely likens this to, of all things, doughnuts. "A long time ago in our evolutionary history, when we found sugar and fat, it made sense, survival-wise, to gobble up as much as we possibly could," he says. Technology changed the world faster than we evolved and those once-rare doughnuts are now cheap and widely available. What was once a survival mechanism is now a health hazard.
"We have the same problem with information," he says. Delaying decisions is smart, allowing you to consider options, seek advice, and fully understand criteria before committing. There was a time when gathering information was hard work. The effort required set a natural limit on pondering. Today, thanks to Google, limitless info is accessible with a few keystrokes. This can lead to an overwhelming desire to know more before making even simple choices.
Just as we have to intentionally stop eating doughnuts before we outgrow the couch, we have to short-circuit the instinct to swallow as much information as we can hold. "Start with a default decision," says Ariely. "Then set a deadline by which time you will choose an alternative or go with the default." So in the case of my husband's dinner dilemma, he might say that morning, "If I don't have a better idea by noon, we'll meet at Bonefish Grill at 8 p.m." That way, he can appear decisive while giving himself the option to research alternatives.