Conversations in Management: Buridan’s Ass

“A man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.”


Buridans_AssAristotle was poking fun at the Sophists when he came up with this line. There’s no record of a snappy Sophist rejoinder but the quip turned out to have legs. Almost 1500 years later, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a 12th century Persian scholar made the same point but swapped tastier dates for Aristotle’s generic food and drink. Fast forward 350 years and fun-lovers used the paradox to satirize the work of French theologian and philosopher Jean Buridan. Substituting an ass for a man in the story was considered an amusing tweak. Now comfortably residing in the communion of saints, Buridan has to be slightly miffed that he’s associated with a little puzzle that he never penned. Still, what’s come to be called Buridan’s Ass gave him more than the 15 minutes of fame allotted to the rest of us. It also kept him in pretty good company. None other than Abe Lincoln invoked Buridan’s Ass when assessing the Democratic candidate in the 1848 presidential elections. While, great minds like Aristotle, Al-Ghazali, Buridan and Lincoln derived deep philosophic meaning about determinism and free will from the paradox, lesser lights encounter Buridan’s Ass on a more practical level—in the grocery store.

Like Buridan’s ass, a modern shopper could starve to death trying to make a selection in today’s supermarket as I recently learned. With dinner preparations well under way, I was dispatched to pick up an additional can of tomato paste. I thought it was a simple assignment until I got to my neighborhood HEB and was confronted with 100 linear feet of tomato paste. The options were mind boggling. High sodium or low sodium? Lots of sugar, a little sugar, no sugar? Organic or non-organic? Brand name or off brand? There was even a tomato flavored substitute featuring a list of ingredients that a PhD in chemistry would have trouble deciphering. Time ticked slowly by. With each passing second my anxiety increased and I considered escape options. I could go home and just say they were out. But then I’d be sent to Kroger’s or Randall’s where I’d undoubtedly experience the same confusion. Spotting an elderly shopper, I asked for help but the wizened grocery store veteran demurred explaining that she’d been in the store since 1986 trying to buy toothpaste. Seems every time she’d make a decision, something new—say green tea flavored with gum buffing—would be introduced and she’d be flummoxed all over again. Desperate, I blindly grabbed a can and without so much as a glance headed for the checkout.

Baruch Spinoza unkindly suggested that someone in my situation was more ass than man but the 17th century philosopher didn’t anticipate an economy in which infinite product variations are consider de rigueur. Sure, some choice is a good thing but as with so many things, it can go too far. (Do we really need 45 varieties of Oreos?) When we have too many choices, decision-making breaks down. It consumes a disproportionate amount of time and generates exponentially more stress. What’s more, too much choice can lead to no choice being made at all. We need to be satisfied with things that are good enough and not worry that we’re missing out on something better.  And this applies to home, work and pleasure. Accept what’s good enough to meet your needs and express gratitude for what you’ve got. Do it and no one will ever make a Buridan’s Ass out of you!    —Ebert

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