Bad Choices; Good Outcomes

Oh, I didn’t know it was a telephone number.

This from a teenager with whom we were playing a brain skills game. (Yes, it was a “bad choices” day for us.) My challenge had been to look at a string of 10 digits (7392541098) for 15 seconds and then repeat them: Not immediately, oh no, that would be too easy. I was to repeat them when my next turn came up, several minutes later.

To the surprise of the assembled masses, I rattled off the 10 digits perfectly, but with slight pauses reflecting how I’d memorized them: 739 254 1098. So, no, it wasn’t a telephone number, although it sounded like one. Experience counts for something.

Remembering long strings of digits is hard, man. Never mind the savants who’ve trained to recite 80 digits of pi: Most of us can hold no more than 4 items in working memory at a time, unless we use some grouping trick as I did. More than that, I wonder if there’s a connection between the human brain and small numbers that goes beyond “what we can remember” to “how we think.”

I think of Adela Rogers St. John (1894 – 1988) using a three-pronged metaphor in one of her novels (reproduced roughly here from, ahem, memory):

Career, marriage, children:
No one can manage more than two charging horses.

I think of one of the best-known sayings about trade-offs:

Fast, cheap, good: Pick any two.
Widely used in software development and consulting

I think about a friend’s daughter offering her wisdom:

You can have a special diet.
You can be a picky eater.
You can have someone else cook for you.
But you can’t have all three.

Some might see St. John’s view of a woman’s challenges as hopelessly dated: After all, her admittedly groundbreaking professional heyday was in the 1920s and 1930s. Some certainly see “Fast, cheap, good” as simplistic, even though it captures a truth, albeit not the whole truth, about project management. Some might even object to the limits of dietary accommodation. That’s OK. Just go eat at someone else’s house.

But I find it interesting that they’re all based around two and three. Indeed, where n is greater than three, I can’t think of a single saying built on this structure:

There are n+1 desirable outcomes
or factors or constraints:
Pick any n.

That is, there don’t seem to be any memorable “There are 4: Pick any 3” sayings, and I’m sure there aren’t any “There are 18: Pick any 17” sayings. No, we seem to think in onesies, twosies, and threesies. Getting more sophisticated than that requires a whiteboard, a trained facilitator, and a riveting exercise in pairwise comparisons.

So what? Well, it shows me how to simplify and expedite my own decision-making, especially when there are trade-offs to be made (And when are there not?): Limit the competing factors to three, and then pick any two.

Some might see that as negative or defeatist, but I think Jim Steinem knew what he was writing about. Don’t be sad, cuz two outta three ain’t bad.

I want you (I want you)
I need you (I need you)
But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you
Now don’t be sad (Don’t be sad)
Cuz two outta three ain’t bad.



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12 Responses to Bad Choices; Good Outcomes

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    I have sometimes mused about the sheer universality of threes. They seem to be intrinsic to our thinking and experience. Three dimensions. Three points make a plane. Three examples suffice; offering five or six loses readers. Three’s a crowd. Holy Trinity. Most flags have three colours. First second and third in races. Three strikes and you’re out, and its partner, the triple play. Three-legged stool the minimum for stability. The Three Musketeers. Three of a kind in gin rummy. Three sheets in the wind.
    It’s almost as if, when we get past three, our brains shift into neutral — the numbers don’t register any more. It’s just “another fish.”
    Jim T

  2. Tom Watson says:

    About memory…
    One time, years ago, Jerry Lewis hosted the Johnny Carson show. Ed McMahon said to Lewis that he understood him to be a memory expert. So Lewis said, “Well, here, I’ll give you an example.” He had a list of 10 things, all dissociated, and the strings in each thing get longer as they go from 1 to 10.

    It starts out, “One duck, two hens, three squawking geese…”

    He repeated it the next night and I committed it to memory. I can still do it all these years later.

    I have tried it with groups of people. You have the people repeat after you line 1, then line 1 and 2, then line 1, 2 and 3…and so on, up to all ten lines. Very few people can get past line 5, nobody I have encountered past line 6.

    It’s known as the “Announcers Test.”

    Here’s what Wikipedia says:
    One hen, two ducks
    One of the better known tests originated at Radio Central New York in the early 1940s as a cold reading test given to prospective radio talent to demonstrate their speaking ability and breath control.[5] Del Moore, a long time friend of Jerry Lewis, took this test at Radio Central New York in 1941, and passed it on to him. Jerry performed this test on radio, television and stage for many years, and it has become a favorite tongue-twister (and memory challenge) for his fans around the world. Professional announcers would be asked to perform the entire speaking test within a single breath without sounding rushed or out of breath.

    One hen
    Two ducks
    Three squawking geese
    Four Limerick oysters
    Five corpulent porpoises
    Six pairs of Don Alverzo’s tweezers
    Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array
    Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt
    Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates, with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth
    Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who all stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time.


  3. Judith Umbach says:

    I have found in my travels that our liking of “three” is another example of Western thinking. Other cultures may included threes, but some are based on seven or four and others don’t know what we are talking about. Perhaps that is why highly complicated art pieces are so intriguing.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – What? Everyone doesn’t think like us? Funny how you can know that intellectually, and yet still be surprised at a specific example. Thanks!

  4. Barbara Carlson says:

    John received a large package — in the mail — from the bank — 12+ pages of forms to be fill out in order to authorize a transfer of his RRSP to an RIF. I showed him the work involved and he made a frog face.
    I offered to do it for him…this time…but what would he do if he didn’t have me.?


    Sometimes the third item on the list is a consideration, if short-term.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yes, “This or That?” isn’t my happiest place. A third option feels much more bountiful.

  5. Ian Hepher says:

    Interesting…I immediately recalled a song from a Pete Seeger record I once owned, also called “One Big Fat Hen”, but with different following lines. I tried to find it on line. Pete isn’t there, but Joe Stead credits him at the beginning of this video.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ian – Even Pete would have had trouble turning Tom’s sequence into a song, I’m thinking. Thanks for this version.

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