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    OCTOBER 13, 2005
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Decisions, Decisions, Decisions


Choosing one thing no longer means giving up the opportunity for as many others as it used to, says management science professor Ed Rosenthal in his new book, The Era of Choice: The Ability to Choose and Its Transformation of Contemporary Life. For Rosenthal, choice has big-picture effects far beyond consumerism: "It's not just walking into a supermarket and choosing among 30,000 things; in today's world, we can choose our own lifestyle and our lives' paths."

Professor Ed Rosenthal, a specialist in decision-making, has written a book about choice.

Until recently, to most people camping meant getting back to nature. Taking a break from civilization. "Roughing it." But what if you want to sit under the constellations without missing your favorite TV stars?

These days, portable television, video games, showers and air mattresses are common at campgrounds around the country. "Luxury camps" even offer four-star amenities such as queen beds, gourmet kitchens, wireless Internet and massage stations, for up to $300 a night.

Choosing one thing in today's world - such as a couple of nights in nature - no longer means precluding as many other things as it once did. That's the message behind management science professor Ed Rosenthal's new book, The Era of Choice: The Ability to Choose and Its Transformation of Contemporary Life (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press).

On the consumer level, during the past generation, we have gained access to numerous products that allow us to "blend or mix and match different things," Rosenthal said. "It's not just Coke and Diet anymore, but now Vanilla Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke with Lime, and so on."

But the real theme of the book is the effect of having so many choices on the bigger picture. "It's not just walking into a supermarket and choosing among 30,000 things; in today's world, we can choose our own lifestyle and our lives' paths," Rosenthal said.

We no longer work 40 years for the same company, Rosenthal pointed out. "Now - partly in response to market pressures - we may have several quite diverse career paths in succession."

Flexibility rules, Rosenthal said. "We move from house to house frequently, and en route are always thinking about putting in new kitchens and accessories."

What's more, we no longer think about spouses and partners in the sense of hopeful permanence that we used to, he said. We try to pack in as many experiences as we can, and in today's world, because so many things are possible, we are more reluctant than past generations to commit ourselves.

"We no longer settle for an unsatisfactory spouse, as we would have 100 years ago," he said.

His book also focuses on how much the overabundance of choices has changed life significantly during the past century - and why all this progress hasn't necessarily made our lives better.

Nowadays, Rosenthal said, everything is "trendy and ephemeral."

"We are losing our loyalty and our traditions, and perhaps this loss of stability or emotional core to our lives has contributed to an increase in depression and malaise in our society," Rosenthal said.

Of course, there is an upside to this plethora of possibilities. Rosenthal attributes all of these choices to the tremendous variety and richness of modern life, as compared to our parents' and grandparents' lives.

According to Rosenthal's book, choice not only affects our lifestyles, it has had a tremendous impact on societal progress. Even modern scientists are having their cake and eating it too, he said.

He explained that scientists now reject some limiting beliefs established in the past. For example, Rosenthal said that for 300 years, physicists disagreed on the nature of light - over whether it exists in the form of a particle or a wave - and the two theories were mutually inconsistent. That was the case until physicist Niels Bohr presented a theory in the 1920s that light is both a particle and a wave - essentially proving that even scientists could have it both ways.

In The Era of Choice, Rosenthal writes that the "startling revelation about choice is that its presence in our lives manifests itself in a fantastic variety of intellectual and cultural contributions."

"In some sense, the book's an intellectual history of the 20th century," Rosenthal said. "I've always been interested in different intellectual movements, in physics, mathematics, linguistics and philosophy, and I saw this subject of choice as a way to tie them all together because it's had an impact on all of them."

An expert in decision-making and game theory at The Fox School of Business, Rosenthal noted that his area of expertise alone lends itself to the point of the book, as these studies have only been around for about 50 years. "The very fact that these disciplines arose in the mid-20th century is itself a very telling sign that we live in an era of choice."

Since writing this book, his first, Rosenthal said he faces ordinary decisions and dilemmas with a heightened awareness that such decisions are the burden of our advancing modernism. "This tendency to get philosophical in the middle of making up your mind about something almost literally weighs you down," he said.

Rosenthal also published an essay on rationality, a study of human-behavior and decision-making, for the July 8 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and said that rationality will be the subject of his next book.

- By Lisa Litzinger