The Torment of Choice - Is More Choice Liberating or Debilitating?



In many cultures, having the freedom to buy what we want, when we want it, and make our own choices is considered crucial to a quality life. That's why supermarkets are full of countless variations of similar products. We believe that the more choices we have, the better. However, the relationship between choice and psychological well-being is not that simple. Having too many options to choose from can often be counterproductive. This is the foundation on which the choice paradox idea was built on.

What Is The Paradox of Choice?

The choice paradox, introduced by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book called The Paradox of Choice - Why More is Less, is the theory that having too many options makes it difficult for people to choose, potentially harming their well-being in the process.

The theory has been tested in many different ways over time. Perhaps the most popular experiment involves sampling different tastes of jam in the supermarket. In this experiment, researchers organized free samples of one brand's jam and asked people to try different flavors. There were six different flavors in one scenario. And in the other, there were 24 of them.

The traditional thinking would be that having more options is better because consumers can choose what best suits their tastes and affinities. But, the results of the study showed that something completely opposite happened. Although more people tasted the jam when they were presented with 24 flavors compared to six, fewer ended up buying this product.

And so the choice paradox suggests that there is a point where offering too many options makes it difficult to decide, and consumers may not make a buying decision at all.

Schwartz concluded that the modern-day storm of consumer choices makes us more constrained and frustrated instead of happier and more satisfied. According to the author, too many available choices lead to:

  • Restraint instead of freedom: People prefer not to make decisions, especially when it comes to complicated choices between similarly attractive alternatives;
  • Less satisfaction with the decisions we make, or regret for the decisions we made;
  • Unrealistic expectations;
  • Comparisons with people around us and the previous best experiences;
  • And finally, self-accusation: When expectations don’t meet the set, often unrealistic, criteria, we tend to blame ourselves for it. 

Maximizers Vs. Satisficers

Schwartz classified people or consumers into two main categories: maximizers and satisficers. The main difference between the two is how much time and effort they are ready to invest in their decision making.

Maximizers are always looking for the best possible option. They need to 'maximize' their every choice and get the best deal for their buck. When faced with too many options, maximizers are under a lot of stress and often experience profound regret as they almost never make that 'perfect' choice. As a result, maximizers are chronically unhappy because no matter how good the deal is, something better pops up all the time.

On the other hand, satisficers pick the first available option, and 'good enough' is perfect for them. They don't spend much time pondering the variety of choices. Once they figure out what they need, they are decisive and get the first option that satisfies that need. As soon as they make a decision, they move on without reflecting on the choice they made.

How Can We Minimize The Choice Paradox?

The only way to eliminate the terror of choice in today’s cluttered market is by artificially eliminating it. There are far too many choices wherever we go; there’s no escaping it. So we have to limit it ourselves, and Barry Schwartz suggests the following tactics:

  1. Maximize less, and satisfice more: We should silence our inner perfectionist and stop being afraid of missing out. Instead, we need to remember when we were settled and happy with ‘good enough.’  

To become more of a satisficer, Schwartz recommends making a list of criteria before buying a new pair of jeans, for example. The moment you find a pair that fits those criteria, buy it and forget about it;

  1. Stick to your usual: If something works, there's no need to change it. We should resist the temptations of the new and improved. Take Steve Jobs, for example. He used to wear the same clothes every day, so he wouldn't waste time on decisions that don't matter; 
  2. Forget the ‘what ifs’ and embrace serendipity: We tend to torture ourselves with 'what ifs' without knowing for sure that a different scenario would have been more beneficial for us. Instead, we should open our minds and embrace serendipity. 

Life will surprise you in the most unbelievable way if…you let it.

- Roxana Jones

  1. Let go of regrets: If we manage to lower the expectations about the results of our decisions, there will be less regret. If we constantly fear the regret we might feel later on, we won’t be able to make any decisions at all;
  2. Practice gratitude: We need to stop comparing ourselves to other people surrounding us. Instead of being anxious about what we don’t have, we should be grateful for what we do have.

At the end of the day, we need to learn to appreciate the things we have in life. Agonizing over other attractive options or what else the world has to offer is a recipe for absolute misery. Instead of always second-guessing, we should pour our energy into what really matters and focus on what makes us happy.

Knowing what's good enough requires knowing yourself and what you care about. So: Think about occasions in life when you settle, comfortably, for 'good enough'; Scrutinize how you choose in those areas; Then apply that strategy more broadly.

- Barry Schwartz

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