July 3, 2008

There's not always a word for the thing you want to say.

But it's slightly maddening when you feel there's a word, and you just can't pull it out of your brain. A colleague of mine is looking for a word that expresses a phenomenon embodied in these 3 examples:
1. I go to the track and place a bet on a horse because its name is the same as my son's and the jockey is wearing #5, which is my son's hockey jersey number.

2. I can't decide what to order for lunch so I decide that I'll order whatever the person in front of me orders.

3. I'm not sure what color car to purchase so I decide to purchase the color of the next car that drives by my house.
Now, I think #1 is distinctly different from 2 and 3, because in #1, she knows what the answer is when she adopts the rule. In #2 and #3, she excitingly adopts the rule and locks herself into a result that is unknown. But all 3 are about adopting a rule to make a decision while knowing that there is nothing about the rule that will improve the quality of the decision. One could superstitiously believe that the rule would make the decision good or religiously believe — in examples 2 and 3 — that God knew you'd adopted the rule and was giving you a sign about what was the right decision. And one could think that the rule would generate randomness where somehow a nonrandom decision seemed bad. But basically, the decisionmaker is being playful or poetic.

So is there a word for this?

And do you have any good examples of using this sort of decisionmaking — colorful and exciting rules you've made for yourself? Obviously, there are a lot of standard ways approaches like rolling the dice or consulting the Magic 8 ball, but how about some weird stuff? Or why not make up a rule for yourself about something right now and do it? Got a decision to make? Make it based on something strange and as-yet-undetermined. And tell us about it.


This made me think of "Slacker" — one of my favorite movies. We see 2 women walking along the sidewalk. One says: "The next person who passes us will be dead within a fortnight." But that's not a case of the phenomenon my colleague means – not unless we're supposed to view the speaker as a murderer choosing a victim. The standard interpretation is that she's a psychic.

ADDED: Someone in the comments mentions Dadaism, and that reminds me of "A Book of Surrealist Games." I think example #3 could be seen as a sort of surrealist game. The more we talk about these examples, the more I think they are 3 different things. Several commenters have said that #1 is superstition, and I think it is either superstition — in the form of overvaluing a coincidence — or a sentimental delight in coincidence. #2 seems to be conformity or a rational bet based on a tiny amount of evidence. Someone who is eating here is eating that, so maybe he knows what's good. Only #3 is surrealist and dangerous — but nowhere near as much as if you'd chosen the color of your car based on something other than the color of someone else's car. Chances are it will be an ordinary car color, and at least someone else has seen fit to get a car that color. That said, I saw a bright purple car 2 days ago. It looked like hell. And I love the color purple. It just looks like hell on a car.


save_the_rustbelt said...


Roger J. said...

"indecision" springs to mind, although your question is focusing more on the decision making criteria

paul a'barge said...

1) mutt
2) overweight
3) unfocused

Ann Althouse said...

It's not "indecision." It is a method of decision.

Bissage said...

I’d love to contribute something useful to this thread but I’m still stuck on that whole rules of description becoming rules of prescription thingy.

Paddy O said...


The examples remind me of the Dirk Gently books by Douglas Adams. Dirk Gently is a private detective who has all kinds of odd habits for solving the crime.

He explains it, not always successfully by asserting the “interconnectivity of all things”. Thus, we see this in his method of driving where when lost he follows anyone who “seems to know where they’re going” with the thought that one might not get to where one wants to be, but will get to where one needs to be in order to find a solution to the problem.

I also think about the Urim and Thummim in the Bible, as well as casting lots (which is how the disciples found a replacement for Judas). It's letting go the rational process and trusting the winds of fate know what they are about. Sometimes.

High Aldwin: [throws an apple into the air which turns into a bird] Go in the direction the bird is flying!

Burgelcutt: He's going back to village!

High Aldwin: Ignore the bird. Follow the river.

~ Willow (1988)

MrBuddwing said...

paddy o. said:


The word "serendipity" crossed my mind too, but to me that refers to a "happy accident." Surrendering one's judgment because one can't make up one's own mind is something else, IMHO. Exactly what, I'm still trying to figure out.

Maybe the answer to this question lies in finding some character in a play, book or movie who behaves exactly the same way and assigning that person's name to this type of behavior.

JT said...

Sound like decloranditious decisions to me. But then again, I suffer from spontaneous dental hydroplosion....

John Althouse Cohen said...

Recognition heuristic:

"According to the recognition heuristic, when an individual only recognizes one of two items, the individual will judge the recognized item to be greater in whatever dimensions are positively correlated with recognition."

(I found that phrase by searching for "superstition" and "heuristic" in this book.)

bill said...


Meade said...

Parapsychotic deparalysis

Skeptical said...

Aquinas characterizes the fixing of a rule when natural reason runs out of resources but a rule is nevertheless needed as determinatio. All of these are cases of determinatio. We don't have a nice term for use of some irrelevant but playful criteria to exercise determinatio, though.

Henry said...


Or, in honor of John Cage:

I-ching therefore I am.

Anonymous said...

The standard interpretation is that she's a psychic.

And a very short-term psychic, at that. Just after the guy passed by the two women exits the screen, there's a car tire squeal and a thump.

Kirby Olson said...

I think #2 is called copycatting. OR at least that's what my kids call it (they seem to see it as a kind of plagiarism, and proceed in prosecuting the copycatter with lots of derisive noises).

#1 is hard. #3 has something to do with superstition.

There are areas in which we need whole new vocabularies. Morality toward animals in the wake of Darwin (now that it appears that they are clearly our cousins) needs to be completely revamped, for instance.

Mary Midgley is trying to do this in her book Animals and Why They Matter (1983).

I imagine there's lots of areas like that.

And then there's whole areas of dumb words that lead to stupid thinking, like almost everything that is coming out of political correctness.

muddimo said...


Bissage said...

It's a pretty general term but how about "saticficing" also known as "bounded rationality?"

I didn't spend a lot of time on teh Googles but here, at least is something of a definition.

You see, I had already decided in advance that I was going to post a comment and link to whatever site teh Googles listed first, no matter what.

EnigmatiCore said...

I am sure there is a word in German. Unfortunately, browser limits won't accept a word that long.

Veeshir said...

#1 would be superstitious.

Indecisive for numbers 2 and 3 as they can't make a decision so they have someone else make the decision for them.

Chip Ahoy said...

determinitive sortition

Tina said...

I would call #1 superstition.

And #2 and #3 "falling back on conformity as the default mode for making a decision, or, laziness".

That would make a great German word.

Dylan said...

When I read the first one I immediately thought "Synchronicity" but that doesn't fit the last two, unless you want to argue that you are forcing your self to be in synchronicity with the other person so, perhaps, "Willful Synchronicity?"

Ron said...

It's sad that the Althouse commentariat, the Theban Band of commenters, the Zulu Impi of commenters, the commenteriat di tutti commentiati of all commenters proceeds to cut a wet fart on your entirely reasonable request! For shame!

Damn it, I'll take a shot.

When confronted with a dualistic choice, I go odd/even based on the number of letters in the first word that comes to mind about the choice. Or the first word I see looking at something closest to my right hand. or foot.

I've polled people in a line about what to do -- and done the exact opposite to prove to myself "I make my own decisions." (which is artful self-deception)

Sexy or funny? Which would choice X make me feel?

If choice I make would make someone I dislike unhappy, I'll choose that!

El Presidente said...


At least for 2 and 3.

john(classic) said...


Anonymous said...

I don't know what the word would be in English, but the German word is Gelegentlichentscheidungwunderlichauslagern.

Isn't German wonderful! They have a word for everything.

KCFleming said...

1. Innumerate.

2. Illiterate.

3. Impulsive.

George M. Spencer said...

You are a korinthenkacking korinthenkacker.

It means "to shit raisins" by obsessing over trivia.

It's German.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

1. Gambling. Coincidental thinking.

2. & 3. Indecisive and lackadaisical

Swifty Quick said...

I see the three examples distinct from one another to the point that one word cannot be used for all three with precision.

#1 is superstition.
#2 is mindless imitation.
#3 is randomness.

Unknown said...

This year my parents decided on where to go vacation by getting change for something on May 1. The state on the back of the quarter was where they decided to go. The quarter was for CT.

Fatalistic determinism.

Jeff Gee said...

A friend of mine, who made pretty much all of his decisions this way, called it "casting your fate to the wind." Like in the song of nearly the same name.

Kirby Olson said...

There was a Romanian dadaist of a sort by the name of Benjamin Fondane who always chose what he knew to be a mistake, as he thought it would make life surprising.

He was Jewish.

He ended up in the extermination camps in WWII and perished.

He had a good run up to that moment, though.

KCFleming said...

who always chose what he knew to be a mistake, as he thought it would make life surprising

When driving about, he must have enjoyed the sound of his passengers screaming.

And I'll bet he wasn't permitted to cook all that often. Why no, they're not raisins at all.

Amexpat said...

Don't have a word for it, but the subject reminds me of the book "Dice man", where the protagonist makes decisions based on rolling the dice.

I was a fan of the book when I read it in my late teens, but I didn't think it was very good when I gave it another look a few years ago.

KCFleming said...

I rely on certain negative bellwethers to help my decisions, choosing the opposite of people I know who are reliably wrong.

Lacking sufficient information or the time to explore some issue or topic, I'll do what they do not.

Robert Frostian Path Inertia?
Obstinate nonconformity?
The Unwisdom of Crowds?
Agoraphobic nullification?

Bissage said...

I now see that JAC did the "bounded rationality" thing at 9:53.

Had I read his first, I wouldn't have posted my 10:17.

Sorry about that.

John Stodder said...

Having spent a few years of my late adolescence burrowing into the music of John Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez and George Crumb -- being cool in 1974 required a lot of work -- I think I know the word you are looking for: aleatory, or aleatoric: "characterized by chance or indeterminate elements."

EnigmatiCore said...

Ha! Ha! While the others may have done the whole German long-word-for-everything joke better, I did it first!

Henry said...

My wife and have I learned from experience that whatever I order in a restaurant will be better than what she orders. She also tends to read more of the menu than me. If she decides to duplicate my order, I switch to my next choice... and the rule stays in force.

Anyway, counter to Pogo's list, one word that hasn't come up is "efficiency."

These examples are essentially trivial. A smart person may well use a dumb metric to avoid wasting thought over trivial matters.

Or perhaps, being about choices, it's a religious matter. The word moksha means the "liberation from the cycle of existence (samsara) often identified with a state of knowledge in which the phenomenal world and its concerns are shut out in favour of a mystical identification with the ultimate, changeless ground of all things."

Which brings up the correct phrase:

instant karma

Dust Bunny Queen said...

In my business there is the Odd Lot Theory.

Basically the average investor is always wrong and we should do the opposite. Generally, that is the case and it works.. When the small investor is dumping stocks out of fear...buy. When the odd lot or small lot sales are up....sell.

Johnny Roosh said...


Brian Doyle said...


Gahrie said...

But all 3 are about adopting a rule to make a decision while knowing that there is nothing about the rule that will improve the quality of the decision

My first thought was liberalism to be honest.

But on further reflection, I think legislative is more appropo.

To be Adamsian, I would suggest managerial.

erictrimmer said...

1. Synchromancy

And I like jonmichael's "fatalistic determinism" for 2 and 3.

ballyfager said...

You might be able to get by with calling #1 propinquity. That's as close as I can come.

But, if you're going to do it, for God's sake don't go to the track very often or you'll get buried.

erictrimmer said...

It seems "synchromancy" has already been taken to mean combining human with machine.

How about "aleamancy" -- to borrow from Jon Stodder's post.

DBrooks17 said...

Interesting, Dylan. "Willful synchronicity" was the same term that came to my mind when I read No. 1--that, or "Forced synchronicity."

Anneliese said...


Smilin' Jack said...

In John Barth's "The End of the Road" the protagonist suffers from psychological paralysis--a pathological inability to make decisions--so his doctor gives him a set of rules. I.e. to choose a direction, go right; to choose an object, color, etc. choose the first in alphabetical order; and so on. I think the doctor had a name for this, but I forget what it was. (An excellent novel, BTW.)

Mr. Astor Harrisburg said...

Some people are followers. Others are leaders.

In all three examples, the woman (women follow, they don't lead) ....she refuses to be an individual about the way in which she makes choices.

We all know certain women (a few guys).... who can't come up with anything original or unique, so they simply copy what they see.

I'd like to see that decision process applied to marriage. ---Just simply marry the next guy who sits down next to you.

It can't be any worse than the current methods of mate selection.

ricpic said...

Adopting a rule to have a rule even though you know or suspect the rule itself won't help. Isn't that a lot like the practice in medicine of giving a patient a sugar pill because the mere taking of a pill may have a placebo effect?
So why not coin a new word for the phenomenon: placeboism?

Triangle Man said...

I think this describes "intuition", or a form of it. Although the described decision process seems to be more specific than "just a hunch", the heuristics mentioned are among the tools that people use to make decisions when information is sparse.

See Kahneman's, "Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases". ISBN:0521284147

Tibore said...

I have to agree with the posters who've mentioned "fatalistic" as the proper description. There's an element of resignation and surrender to events beyond the individual's control in the second and third scenario you describe. And while I admit that the normal connotation behind being "fatalistic" might be a tad too strong for these applications, it still seems to fit the best.

Ann Althouse said...

"I'd like to see that decision process applied to marriage. ---Just simply marry the next guy who sits down next to you."

Titania in "Midsummer Night's Dream."

XWL said...

Titania in "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Althouse invokes the Zeroth Law.

I'm thinking a new word is in order (as some above have also suggested).

My vote is for Serendippyism. It's a portmanteau of "serendipity" (which many have come up with above), and "dippy" (which this person clearly is), with the "-ism" ending to suggest that this is a doctrine, system, theory, or practice.

blake said...

It's really "pseudo-random".

This reminds me of Ray Bradbury's "The Miracles of Jamie", where the titular character decides that he's the son of God.

He associates desired effects with random occurrences, and also has cause-and-effect worked out so that even when he doesn't get the effect he planned, it was the effect he wanted.

Like he decides he's going to smite a bigger kid to impress the girl, but gets his clock cleaned. The girl becomes sympathetic, however, so the actual effect was better than the planned one.

In the culmination of the story, his mother is sick, and he decides that she'll get better if he makes it to the next telephone pole before a car passes him.

Actually, Bradbury has another, similarly themed story about one boy "controlling" another, who in a fit of rage yells, "I order you to do everything you're going to do for the rest of your life."

So, it's cause-and-effect that are getting mucked about here.

In #1, it's recognition of the unknown-ness of the situation.

In #2, it depends really on your motivation, but it can be a perfectly good way to get yourself out of a rut.

#3, meh, who cares? It's a car color. If you're committed, though, you have to include that flowery hand-painted VW bug with the peace signs on it.

I object to the term "placeboism" because in none of these cases is the person fooled by an external ritual to do something he had the power to do, but not the power to do consciously.

Placeboism would be something like, in #2, if someone said, "Find the fattest man in the restaurant and order what he has, and you'll always be happy." If I do that and it "works" even when the guy orders food that I would normally hate, that would be more appropriately called "placeboism" (because I changed my internal systems to match an external ritual).

On the other hand, example #1: Placeboism would be if someone told me that I could win by dropping a penny on the racing form. (A wheat penny, too, none of this modern crap.) And then I subsequently win. But to be a true placebo I have to have caused the win somehow, or minimally used the penny as a device to determine the actual winner, using a perceptive power I didn't know I had.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

functional equivalent of flipping a coin

which is of course a very useful tool, so common in its commonest form but still we marvel anew when seeing it dressed in novel fashions

some variations on the theme are making a decision at random so the decision gets made, or purposely randomizing the decision (picking a random value so the value is random), or imputing to randomness or arbitrariness the will of a higher power

and lots more, don't ya know

Lance Burri said...

I decided to make a rule that I would blog about the very next thing I read, no matter what it was. Then I got a cup of coffee, then I realized that I hadn't finished reading this post yet, which meant that the same post that gave me the idea to write about the very next thing I read was the very next thing I read.

Wierd, huh?

Ann Althouse said...

Hi, Lance. I read that and think you missed Jim Lindgren's point. He wasn't saying he didn't accept people arguing with him. He was saying that he thought readers wanted solid, well-organized arguments so that they could see what it was and argue back or agree.

That means he's trying to help his readers by presenting the argument in a conventional form so that they can decide what they think and take whatever position they like. He's saying that's what he thinks the readers want, and he is giving them that.

It's much harder to fight with me, because I'm cagey and strange and you can't always tell what I think. I'm often fooling around, digressing, and doing various odd things that amount to a personal aesthetic of mine.

But neither Jim nor I have a problem with people fighting and disagreeing with us. You seem to have a chip on your shoulder about lawprofs and our authority and power. It's distorting your perception.

I want to promote debate and commentary too, but I'm stimulating a different kind of conversation as you can see if you read the comments around here for a while.

Ann Althouse said...

Oh, wait! That wasn't Lance's blog post! That was somebody else. Sorry. I read those 2 posts at the same time. Sorry, Lance. You really did just reference the post about superstition and coincidence.

Lance Burri said...

Oh, thank goodness. I'm reading that second-to-last comment of yours and thinking "what? I did what, now?"

Unknown said...

I just wanted to say, I stumbled upon your blog accidentally while searching for a word that means a sort of playful rest, which I did not find, but I really enjoyed your posting.
And I wanted to add, I saw a purple car two days ago and I thought it looked spectacular.