Warning: having more choices can be detrimental to your happiness

October 3, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

I recently spoke with a friend who was having difficulty making a major decision in his life. I suggested to him that he might be struggling because he is a talented fellow who might therefore have too many options.

After we concluded our conversation, I recalled reading a well-written book called the Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2004), by Barry Schwartz. This delightful book incorporates many findings of cognitive science and the psychology of decision-making.  His main point is, indeed, paradoxical:

As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive.  But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear.  As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded.  At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitated.  It might even be said to tyrannize. 

When Schwartz speaks of tyranny, he reminds us that we live in a society in which you can find paralyzing members of choices even at the supermarket.  Why is it that we need 16 types of instant mashed potatoes, 75 types of instant gravies, 120 different types of pastas sauce 16 versions of Italian dressing, 275 types of serial and 64 formulas of barbecue sauce?  We face similar numbers of choices when we choose retirement plans, medical care, careers, where to live and who to be.

Modern society has done this to us: it has transformed many choices into explicit and psychologically real choices.  The average American sees 3000 advertisements each day, which equates to 30 advertisements per waking minute (page 53).  We are covered with ads because advertisers realize that “familiarity breeds liking,” in other words “people will wait the familiar things more positively than the unfamiliar ones.”

Schwartz describes experiments where people are confounded when exposed to larger numbers of consumer items from which to choose, many of these people turning away rather than making any choice at all.  We find it hard to ignore all of the choices to which we are exposed.  In fact, they are impossible to ignore because once we become aware of them, they become our “standard of comparison.”  When we see a person next to us using a smaller faster laptop computer with a brighter screen, my own perfectly adequate computer no longer seems adequate.

Schwartz argues that even though having some choices is good, this doesn’t necessarily mean that having more choices is better. He suggests that we need to maximize our freedom by “learning to make good choices about the things that matter “while avoiding the time drain of obsessing over choices that don’t matter.  It follows that we should not be rebelling against all constraints on freedom of choice.  We should also strive to make choices that are merely “good enough,” instead of seeking perfect or at least superior choices.  Schwartz further advises that “we would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.”

As a Schwartz admits, these conclusions conflict with the conventional wisdom that we are always better off with more choices and that we should always strive for the highest of standards in our decision-making.  The increased number of options in modern society has three unfortunate facts, per Schwartz

  • It means that decisions require more effort.
  • It makes mistakes more likely. 
  • It makes a psychological consequences of mistakes more severe

Many of us have been turned into “maximizers,” who need to be assured that every purchase or decision is the absolute best that could have been made.  The healthier alternative to being a maximizer is to be a “satisficer,” to “settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.”  As opposed to maximizers, satisficers search only until they find an item that meets their criteria and standards, at which point they stop.  They are not concerned about the possibility that there are superior products or better bargains “just around the corner.”

Therefore, the Paradox of Choice is not just an academic presentation.  It is a self-help manual.  Schwartz assures us that “most of us have the capacity to be satisficers.”  He includes tests for determining one’s tendencies as well as advice for breaking one’s maximizing habits.

The deep lesson of the Paradox of Choice is that more choices don’t necessarily mean more control.

There comes a point at which opportunities become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed.  Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope.  Having the opportunity to choose is no blessing if we feel we do not have the wherewithal to choose wisely.

Once again, the solution is to be selective in investing in our choice making.  “The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.”


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Jennifer says:

    I have been talking to people about this same thing! I mean really, how many different kinds of headache medicine do we really need? But on a larger social scale, I think women who grew up in the generation of women's lib have been at odds to make sense of all the choices suddenly available to them after living prescribed lives for so long. The door was flung wide open to us in terms of what we could do or become "when we grow up", but the direction and guidance needed to choose a path were not so easily available. Very interesting. I will have to check out Paradox of Choice.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a video of Barry Schwartz discussing his book, The Paradox of Choice. http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/09/barry-schwartz-o… Here's why too much choice is bad for us (although it's not all bad).

    It produces paralysis rather than liberation – people prefer to make no decision rather than make a complicated choice.

    We are less satisfied with the decisions we manage to make, even if they were good decisions.  When we're doing anything, we frustrated that we're not simultaneously able to do other things too.

    Unrealistic expectations.   We do better but we feel worse.  Our expectations went up and we got something that was less then these heightened expectations.   Everything was better back in the days when everything was worse.  "The secret to happiness is low expectations."

    Self-blame – when there are many choices and your choice is not perfect, you blame yourself rather than "the world."

    More choices are not necessarily better than some choices.   Too many choices make us worse off. 

  3. Thanks for the book recommendation. I just bought it. If there is anybody who has trouble with making decisions, it's me.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    "Indecision may or may not be my problem." Jimmy Buffett

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    I've posted on this topic before, but it keeps recurring to me that this is a critically important topic for the exact reasons stated by Schwartz.

    Note his statistic (at the 2:25 mark) that one can assemble 6.5 MILLION different stereo systems out of the components offered by one store.

    Note at the 6:30 mark, we are continually needing to decide whether to WORK, thanks to the "freedom" offered to us by gadgets.

    This explosion of choices, is great in many ways, but it produces "paralysis"; it makes it really difficult for people to choose at all.

    At the 9:50 mark, Schwartz explains that even for those of us who persevere and MAKE choices, we are less satisfied with the option we choose. We also tend to obsess over the attractive features of those many alternatives we have rejected, even when we have chosen well. Great cartoon at the 12:00 mark.

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