The Paradox of Choice

How often do you feel like there are too many options to choose from? Couldn’t figure out what to watch on Netflix? Got stuck deciding what outfit to wear? Couldn’t pick a restaurant to go out to with your friends? Struggled to pick a meal once you were at that restaurant?

We’re living in an age where we have more choices for pretty much everything than ever before. We tend to think that our freedom lies in having a variety of choices, but there’s a threshold before those choices become taxing.

I’d like to use this post to discuss a very interesting phenomenon; the paradox of choice. This post will serve as a summary for the book written by Barry Shwartz, but I’ll talk about other relevant ideas too.

I’ll also talk about a concept called decision fatigue, how unlimited choices affect us psychologically, the contribution of capitalism and how to move forward.

Why more is less

As previously mentioned, it seems like having too many options is paralyzing us, instead of liberating us. We don’t realize how when comparing so many choices, it often leaves us with a sense of regret.

I should’ve ordered the usual. We should’ve chosen the first hotel. We should’ve watched the other movie. I should’ve joined the other course.

“Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. “

onegreenplanet.org

According to Barry Shwartz, good decisions usually involve 6 key aspects. As you’ll notice, the more options that are available to us, the more effort will be required to make a sound decision. Here are the 6 steps:

  1. Identify your goal or goals
  2. Evaluate their importance
  3. Array the options to achieve them
  4. Evaluate how likely each option is to meet your goals
  5. Pick the best options
  6. Modify your goals based on the outcome

You can see from the list above, if firstly, you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve, you’re going to have trouble making a decision. Understanding how important your goal is to you also plays an important role, because it allows you to sort through the options more effectively.

“Nobody makes plans because something better might turn up, and the result is that nobody every does anything.”

Let’s see how trying to sift through several options affects our ability to further make decisions.

Decision fatigue

You have a certain capacity for the amount of good decisions you can make in a single day. Essentially, your willpower diminishes and the quality of your decisions decrease based on the number of decisions that you make.

The graph below shows what I mean by that. It clearly illustrates that the quality of your decisions are higher, when you make less decisions. Why is understanding this useful? Because it allows us to focus on making our decisions earlier and on what matters.

bluejeanwellness.com

Let’s think about the first hour of your typical day and how many decisions you make before leaving the house. Okay in this case we’re not leaving the house anymore, but until you start being ‘productive’ at home.

You’d usually start on auto-pilot; snoozing, then brushing your teeth, making the bed, stretching a little, maybe even scrolling through your phone (terrible idea btw).

Then comes breakfast. What do I eat? What should I drink? What should I prepare for lunch later? Then you need to get dressed. What should I wear? When should I shower? Should I exercise now or later? Then you have to prepare to do work. Which assignment should I start with? Should I respond to these emails now? Why won’t these people leave me alone?

You get my point. Before we can even start making any important decisions, we’ve already exhausted a handful of our will-power’s supply.

This essentially means that we should make the most important decisions early in the morning. Start planning for your daily activities in advance. Choose your breakfast and your outfit the day before.

Reduce the amount of decisions you need to make per day and you’ll clear up a lot of cognitive space.

The psychology of unlimited choices

When you make a decision that doesn’t turn out well and then find better alternatives, how does usually make you feel?

Regretful.

How does regret play a role in our decision making? There are two main forms of regret, namely: post-decision and anticipation.

When things don’t go well after a decision is made, that’s called post-decision regret. When we anticipate that things aren’t going to go well before even making a decision, it often leaves us feeling anticipatory regret.

Having an enormous amount of choices leads to constantly evaluating “What if”. That is called counterfactual thinking. When we ponder over scenarios that could’ve been. That often leads us to appreciating what we have less and therefore, we derive less satisfaction from our decisions.

Being aware of these psychological consequences is actually a great way for us to overcome the paralysis of over-stimulation. We can identify more clearly our objectives before making a decision, we can learn to accept “good enough” and learn to focus on the few options that meet our standards.

“What looks attractive in prospect, doesn’t always look so good in practice.”

We need to decide when choices really matter and focus our energy there. We tend to believe that the choices we make are a reflection of who we are, so we spend more time than we realize evaluating them.

Capitalism

The root of all evil. I’m kidding haha. I won’t dive too deeply into this, just needed to share some of my thoughts. It seems that the ever increasing number of choices for everything, is rooted in modern consumerism.

Capitalism has bred this kind of thinking in several ways. By making people believe that their sense of value is determined by their net worth. By creating a culture of social comparison, where everyone’s ego is on the line. By creating a ‘satisfaction treadmill’, where we continuously chase the latest products and trends, thinking that we’ll get satisfaction from it.

We might not be able to change the way the system runs on our own, but we can learn to better maneuver through it. We can become aware of how it influences us and our ability to make decisions.

Better awareness -> Better choices -> Better results.

How do we move forward with all this?

Great question. Here some of the points the author mentions that are imperative for us to remain satisfied with our decisions.

  1. Choose when to choose
  2. Be a chooser not a picker
  3. Make your decisions non-reversible
  4. Focus on your blessings and be grateful
  5. Regret less through acceptance
  6. Anticipate adaptation
  7. Control expectations
  8. Curtail social comparison
  9. Learn to embrace constraints

We need to realize that we often try to make decisions based on the objective experience it will provide. However, what’s actually important to us, is often the subjective experience. How we feel about it.

Being a chooser entails understanding what is important to you and how that aligns with your values. Being a picker means just ‘going with the flow’ and picking anything. By making your decisions non-reversible, you’d spend less time ruminating over the other choices. Having an “attitude of gratitude” is pivotal to appreciation and also helps with overcoming regret.

We’re hyper-adaptive beings. We need to keep in mind that everything that was once novel, will become ordinary and comfortable after a while. We need to manage our expectations more realistically in order to avoid disappointment.

Curtailing social comparison is essentially not worrying about everyone else. You’re living your own life, based on your circumstances and your life goals. Don’t worry about impressing other people or missing out based on their experiences. Finally, embrace constraints. Manage your options by limiting them whilst maintaining your standards.

“Choice within constrains, freedom within limits, is what allows us to imagine a host of marvelous possibilities.”

7 comments

  1. Wow!
    This is such an insightful article. I never thought our choices had so much to think about. The decision fatigue, the psychology of unlimited choices, all seem so unique, but so realistic as well.
    I’m glad that I came across your article. Thank you so much!

    As I keen reader of your blog, I can’t wait to read your next article.

    Regards,
    Kiran Kandel

    Liked by 1 person

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