Finally, a Website That Uses Math to Make Your Difficult Decisions For You

Slate's Culture Blog
April 30 2014 3:57 PM

Finally, a Website That Uses Math to Make Your Difficult Decisions For You

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Two roads diverged, but I used math, and that made all the difference.

Todd Klassy/Shutterstock

Have you ever signed a lease on your “dream” apartment, only to spend the next three years cursing your commute? It seemed like such an informed decision at the time; you even made a pros-and-cons list. But some pros (commute length) simply affect your long-term happiness more than others (soaking tub). We all know this. But at the time, it probably felt difficult or impossible to quantify a decision—or even be “nudged” toward the right one—when all the factors seemed ultimately subjective.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

Shows how much we know! Thanks to Something Pop—a free web tool Ben Gimpert, a financial-tech startup co-founder, built as a hobby—we can now quantify everything we think is important to us, and get a clear, objective read-out of the actual best decision. For example, if you’re trying to weigh a career move, you can set up a list of priorities—salary, work environment, mobility, vacation time—and assign each a weighted percentage equal to its relative importance for you (kind of like a “satisficing,” but with better graphics and it does the math for you). You then “grade” each option you currently have based on its performances in your priorities, hit a button, and—surprise, it turns out that being Brand Ambassador for the Cones of Dunshire isn’t right for you after all.

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Whether you’re doing something as middling as buying an appliance, or as massive as whether or not to have another kid, Something Pop can take the seemingly unquantifiable, and break it down for you into an awesome chart.

Gimpert tells me that he and his wife, dance historian Kate Elswit, first got the idea for Something Pop—so named because it can help the right decision “pop” out from the field—when they were apartment hunting in London. They split up to see more places, but they “each needed to be able to sign quickly on an apartment, given the crazy London rental market at the time.” So they created a rating scale, which later became a spreadsheet, and eventually a website.

The tool, Gimpert explains, is based in the science of better decision-making. “People have a natural tendency to confuse priorities and options,” he says, referencing Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow. “An opportunity that is loud, easy, flattering and happens to have popped up recently may not get you closer to your goals.” (That definitely explains the red cowboy boots I bought on my last trip to Austin.)

Gimpert says that not only did Something Pop talk him out of paying extra to live in “one of San Francisco’s hipster neighborhoods,” but that it continues to help keep his business decisions sound. And some of the academics he knows even use it to make decisions about publishing, tenure—even leaving altogether.

“There is something very seductive about quantifying a decision,” Gimpert explains, “knowing that your own personal priorities and goals went into generating that number. We want to think of ourselves as nuanced, subtle creatures, who weigh a million details in taking big steps in life. But actually, there are usually just a handful of personal factors that matter, and that can be surfaced with a little help from software.” Alas, he reminds me, “You might find out that an unsexy option is actually better overall than an option with one very appealing factor but a lot of disadvantages you were willing to overlook.”

As far as making Something Pop work for you, there’s really only one rule: Don’t go back and game your priorities after grading your options, so that the sexy choice “works.” In other words, says Gimpert, “Try not to cheat.”

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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