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.

Dan Ariely

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely's research focuses on decision making. He is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. In addition to his many academic publications, he has published well-known books for laypeople, including The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Predictably Irrational, and The Upside of Irrationality.

Thomas Seeley

Bee biologist Thomas Seeley is the author of Honeybee Democracy and The Wisdom of the Hive. A professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University, where he studies "swarm intelligence," Seeley has been a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. The sweat bee Neocorynurella seeleyi is named for him.

Chang-rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee's five novels, in which he explores the outsider's relationship to culture and identity and how outsider status affects decisions, are A Gesture Life, Native Speaker, The Surrendered, Aloft, and On Such a Full Sea. The winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award for Fiction and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize among other awards, he teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

Jodi Lomask

Choreographer and dancer Jodi Lomask is the founder and Artistic Director of the San Francisco dance company Capacitor, which is devoted to using dance to "explore the patterns and relationships inherent in nature and the cosmos." She has created works for NASA, TED, SFO, Computers and Structures, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Salvadorian Olympic Gymnastics Team, among other groups.

Panel Discussions

GROUP Decisions (moderated by Monisha Pasupathi)


BAD Decisions (moderated by Craig Dworkin)

 FAST Decisions (moderated by Elena Asparouhova)


Influenced Decisions (moderated by Jack Longino)