August 21st, 2019

The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Really Is More

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Picture this: You’ve had a long day at work and all you want to do is decompress in front of the television. You sit down with your snacks and fire up the streaming service of your choice… then spend nearly an hour just choosing what to watch, only to give up and play Candy Crush on your phone instead. Why does this happen?

The problem is that streaming services offer hundreds of different items to choose from! But, you may be wondering, isn’t having more choices supposed to be a good thing? It’s this exact problem that Barry Schwartz explores in The Paradox of Choice. And according to him, there is most definitely such a thing as “too many choices.”

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More Choices Lead to Choice Paralysis

Let’s go back to our previous example of choosing a TV show to watch. This is a fairly low-stakes decision to make but it can still leave us with what Schwartz calls “choice paralysis.” In other words, having too much to choose from literally paralyzes us from choosing at all. The task of mentally sifting through all those shows, comparing them to how you’re feeling or what you’re in the mood for, and then eliminating options until you come to one consumes incredible amounts of time and energy. Plus, if it’s the end of a long day, you’re probably already experiencing decision fatigue!

The greater the number of choices available to us also increases our risk of making a mistake. Choosing the wrong TV show might lead to mild disappointment at worst, but what about for bigger decisions, like choosing your college major or retirement plan? Crucial decisions like these need to be made with care and the easiest way to choose carefully is to limit your options right out of the gate.

Prioritizing can help prevent choice paralysis. Try Fabulous’s One Big Thing challenge to prioritize your daily tasks.

Having a Lot of Options Guarantees Regret

Humans aren’t good enough multitaskers to watch more than one TV show at the same time. A choice has to be made. So, maybe you settle on Game of Thrones, but find yourself wistfully wishing you’d chosen the new Twilight Zone instead. In fact, you may even blame yourself for not making the “better” choice, which can make you depressed. You enjoy both shows, so why do you regret choosing one over the other? It’s because of something
The Paradox of Choice calls “opportunity cost.”

When you’re evaluating your options to make a decision, you calculate the opportunity cost of each option and compare them to one another. Maybe you like Game of Thrones for the politics or cinematography while Twilight Zone’s suspenseful storylines keep you on the edge of your seat. When you choose one over the other, you’re forced to give up on something that might have brought you joy, which can lead to a sense of regret and dulls the satisfaction of what you did choose. Fewer choices mean fewer opportunity costs to weigh, which ultimately leads to greater satisfaction when you do finally decide.

A little perspective can go a long way when making decisions. Try The View from Above meditation to step back from your worries for a moment.

The Secret to Satisfaction? Settling

It’s unlikely that society will reduce the number of choices we have to make any time soon, so what can you do to keep from becoming paralyzed and disappointed by those choices? The Paradox of Choice suggests two things you can do, and they work best when used together.

Artificially Limit Your Choices

The more obvious solution is to simply limit the choices available to you yourself. The next time you’re deciding on a TV show, limit yourself to one streaming service, or one genre, or a short list of just a few potential shows. Ideally, you could limit yourself to one TV show at a time, and watch only that show until you reach the end. Weighing the opportunity costs of fewer things will be less of a burden on your mind. And, once you do decide, you’ll feel less FOMO.

Settle for “Good Enough”

But what about other choices? Let’s say you need to buy a new laptop or choose a vacation destination. You obviously want the best option available, but you’ve also seen the cost of overwhelming yourself with possible choices. Plus, “the best” option is usually more of a fantasy we craft out of our ideal wishes. Instead of disappointing yourself this way, simply choose the first item that’s “good enough” for your needs. Schwartz calls people who do this “satisficers.” Satisficers divide the world into two categories: things that meet their standards and things that don’t. And these self-imposed limitations ultimately make them much happier.

The Paradox of Choice and Freedom

Hearing that having more options to choose from is actually a bad thing and that settling for “good enough” is the only way to be happy is discouraging news, to put it mildly. Shouldn’t we strive to produce and consume the best things available to us? Isn’t reaching for the stars what humanity is all about?

There’s nothing wrong with casting a wide net when it comes to making decisions. However, you have to be realistic about what matters to you and be willing to make compromises. You can’t painstakingly research every type of athletic shoe that exists, but that doesn’t automatically mean you won’t end up with a fantastic pair of shoes after researching a few brands you already trust.

Limiting yourself isn’t an infringement upon your freedom of choice. It’s a way to help you make smarter, more efficient choices, which grants you peace of mind in the process.