A BIRD IN THE HAND

Our choices, good and bad, and how we make them

A babysitter moves through a house trying to find the source of the troubling noise she's heard—and every person in the movie theater's audience wants to scream at the screen, "No! Don't open that door!"

Our sitter can't hear the nervy music pitching up, and, unlike us, she isn't familiar with the requirements of her genre. The screenwriter has made her choices for her, choices meant to create an effect for the audience, not to prolong her wellbeing. Hapless, she is fated to follow a path of decisions already rendered bad by the film's inexorable plot. Choice by choice, the screenwriter feeds her into her fate.

We in the audience know where this must end. But even when we have the information we need, we may not use it well. Having chosen door #1, should I stick with it when offered the chance to change my mind, or should I switch to door #2 or #3? Should I keep my loved one on life support when there is little or no likelihood of recovery or eat that ice cream even though my cholesterol tests just came back with unhappy news?

And what about collective decision making? Birds do it, bees do it. Given that a group of people can guess the number of jellybeans in a jar more accurately than any individual, should I crowd-source my questions about that strange-looking mole on my arm? And if only, like those bees, we could make dancing part of our daily decision-making process.

The sixth Utah Symposium in Science and Literature, to be held March 5-7 of 2014, will examine how people in different disciplines look at how humans make decisions and use what they know to illuminate the human condition. The event will feature behavioral economist Dan Ariely, novelist Chang-Rae Lee, bee biologist Thomas Seeley, and choreographer and dancer Jodi Lomask. These speakers and others ranging from probability theorists to ethicists to child psychologists will gather to talk about the choices we make, why we make them, and how we could make them better.

Is a bird in the hand really worth two in the bush? Come to the 2014 symposium. You might find out.