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Qiaochu Y. '12

Apr 26, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

Posted in: Freshman Applicants

CPW has come and gone, and now you're deciding where to spend the next four years of your life. It's a big decision. And whether you know it or not, you've almost certainly already made it.

Cognitive psychologists Dale Griffin and Amos Tversky (one of the discoverers of cognitive biases along with Daniel Kahneman) asked 24 of their colleagues choosing between jobs to estimate their probability of making each choice. Their average confidence in their choices was 66%, but 96% of them ended up choosing the job to which they had assigned a higher probability. 

Isn't that terrifying? If you can guess where you're most likely going to college, you're almost certainly going there. We change our minds less often than we think.

Last semester I applied for an NSF Fellowship. Part of the application required that I give the name of my graduate institution. Of course, I didn't have a graduate institution yet; I wasn't even done applying! I knew that I was applying to MIT, Harvard, Columbia, UChicago, and UC Berkeley, and I'd looked up the professors at each school to find out which ones I might want to work with, but I hadn't visited them or anything (with the obvious exception of MIT). I did not feel prepared to predict which one I'd end up at. According to the application, I could change my mind later, but it sounded like an annoying process and I would save time by correctly predicting where I'd go right then and there. 

Last semester, months before I formally made my decision to go there, I put "UC Berkeley" on the NSF Fellowship application.

Knowing that I don't change my mind as often as I think is pretty scary, but at least it explains some advice I'd received in high school about college decisions. I'll give it to you in the form of a short poem I found recently by Piet Hein:

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.
No—not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping;
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.


Okay, so you've almost certainly made your decision. Possibly you made it months ago, before you knew all the things you know now. That could be bad, right? What can you do about that?

Well, to some extent, it doesn't matter. If you're good enough to get into MIT, you're probably good enough to get into other great schools too, and you'd probably be happy at any of them. Your experiences at each school will likely be very different, but in many of the most important ways you won't be able to predict those differences. Maybe if you go to one school you'll strike up a strong relationship with a professor who will encourage you to go into academia. Maybe if you go to another school you'll meet some interesting fellow students, drop out, and start a company together. And maybe if you go to a third school you'll meet the love of your life. Who knows? 

If you're content with the decision you've already made, then congratulations! If you're worried that you should be attempting to change your mind, I don't have any easy answers. Reading some of the material on lesswrong.com might be a good idea, although I don't know how much good it'll do you in a few days. Start with the Sequences if you want to try; the relevant one is How To Actually Change Your Mind but I don't remember how much it draws on the others.

If that sounds like work, try reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality instead. Actually, even if you don't listen to anything else I just said, you should try reading Methods anyway. It's good. It's really good. 

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