The Paradox Of Choice – How To Stop Losing While Choosing
"There is no more miserable human being
than one in whom nothing is habitual
— William James
There's good reason I've been eating the same breakfast every day for the past fifteen years.
The very reason I keep wearing identical-coloured shirts.
It's that I am utterly unable to make decisions the first two hours of the day. Or rather, utterly unwilling to spend any precious seven am-bandwidth making inconsequential choices between eggs or yoghurt, navy or charcoal.
Choosing is losing, and nobody wants to feel like a loser first thing in the morning. Plenty of time for that the rest of the day.
And choosing we must. Often.
Indeed, researchers at Cornell University calculated that we make about 226 daily decisions about food alone.
They estimate that the average adult makes around 35,000 decisions each day – a figure that increases as your responsibility levels go up.
Of course, the vast majority of those are micro-decisions. We make them unconsciously, and they can be as trivial as whether to blink.
But those are not the decisions I want to talk about in this article. Instead, I'll focus on the choices we make consciously and examine what happens when we face too many of them.
I'll also look at the upsides and downsides of being either a choice satisficer or maximiser and offer a few tips to make decision-making smoother.
The paradox of choice
We’ve become obsessed with freedom of choice in the past century and a half. Whether it’s travel insurance, toothpaste or friends with benefits, we now expect an endless assortment of options to pick from at all times.
Choice is beautiful because it makes us feel like we have autonomy. Choice holds the promise that we can live our lives how we want, and it allows us to present ourselves in whichever way we decide.
These feelings of autonomy and freedom are essential to our well-being. Those who lack them often suffer negative psychological consequences.
And yet, anyone who’s ever visited a diner in the US will appreciate the stressful downsides of having too much choice.
After you’ve finally settled on a Juicy Lucy burger, a perky server then starts rattling off at least twelve different types of fries to go with it. Disco fries, ma’am? Excellent choice. Would you like the standard mayonnaise, aioli, marinara, ranch, sweet and sour, Caesar, vinaigrette, salsa or tomato sauce with that?
By the time you’ve made your choice (mayo, of course), you’re a nervous wreck, and you feel overwhelmed knowing that for every choice you’ve made, the alternative might have been more optimal.
Author Barry Schwartz calls this the paradox of choice.
A paradox indeed because even though we tell ourselves that having more options makes it more likely we’ll choose the one we’re most happy with, the process of selecting actually requires great effort.
The more options we have, the harder it is to know what is best, and the more likely we’re about to make a ‘wrong’ decision. This often leads to post-decision dissatisfaction or FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) because we can never be sure we wouldn’t have enjoyed those curly-wurlies or the waffle fries even more.
Until recently, being human wasn’t that complex. Most of us would follow a pre-destined path where our choice of career, partner and location was more or less determined by who we were born to.
And the handful of upwardly mobile exceptions would often do their darndest to ensure nobody else would enjoy the same privilege.
Modern life is very different. Thanks to free markets and technology, we now have access to an ever-expanding array of products, services and potential partners.
This choice expansion is a result of economic liberalism. Its ideology is entirely based on the idea that more choice equals more freedom, and more freedom equals greater happiness.
Therefore, more choice means more happiness.
Putting the obvious environmental consequences of having too much choice aside for a second, Schwartz’s paradox of choice questions this logic. He argues that because of the sheer availability of options we need to deliberate, many of us now suffer from what he calls choice overload.
There’s wide acceptance now around this decision fatigue or overchoice as it is sometimes referred to, but it’s important to state that not everybody agrees it’s a thing. Some researchers point out there is not a tremendous amount of evidence to support his view, while others suggest that greater choice actually helps us clarify what we’re looking for rather than overwhelm us.
What kind of decision-maker are you?
Whether you believe in choice overload or not, it’s hard to disagree that some people are truly bad decision-makers.
We can classify decision-makers into guessers, maximisers and satisficers. But first, let’s have a brief look at the decision-making process itself.
The verb ‘to decide’ finds it root in the Latin ‘decidere’. It combines the prefix de- (off or down) with caedere (to cut or strike). So, in making a decision, a person figuratively cuts off all other possible avenues.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman’s states that people apply two modes of thinking – System 1 or fast and automatic thinking which we often associate with intuition, and System 2 which is the slow, deliberate and conscious thinking we link to logic.
As I wrote in a previous article, both systems are complementary, and one isn’t better than the other. There’s plenty of research to suggest that both analytical and intuitive thinking happen at the same time.
In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a President (intuition) making a sloppy, off-the-cuff policy announcement, with their Press Secretary (rational mind) then scrambling to justify the decision in public – a sadly all too familiar analogy.
Let’s see how this applies to different decision-making styles.
The guesser likes to minimise the effort of making decisions as much as possible and has therefore developed a habit of choosing pretty indiscriminately and without truly considering the consequences.
While some guesswork is indeed harmless for the majority of decisions, guessers rely a little too heavily on their System 1 intuitive thinking. As a result, they fall prey to a whole host of psychological biases and mental shortcuts that cloud their judgment.
Most of us turn into guessers when we’re confronted with too many options. Our system 2 decides there’s simply too much information to consider and therefore becomes incapacitated. We then switch to our heavily prejudiced gut feeling instead.
Guessers are particularly prone to this because their baseline overwhelmed is pretty low, or as they overestimate their clairvoyant powers.
You can easily spot them because they’re either visibly deluded, highly impulsive, or the kinds of folks you keep shaking your head at in disbelief at the poor life choices they continue to make.
The maximiser doesn’t guess; they deliberate.
And god, do they deliberate. Only to settle on a choice they’ll regret for days, weeks or a lifetime.
Maximisers only accept the best possible option, so they need constant assurance that their decision is indeed the most optimal one. They spend an enormous amount of effort exploring each course of action, even if there’s a clear front-runner or the decision is trivial.
Several studies have shown that maximisers are prone to self-blame and have a higher chance of being depressed and extremely perfectionistic – although it’s unclear whether one causes the other. While maximisers often arrive at objectively better decisions than satisfiers, research shows they are nonetheless more unhappy with their choices, regardless of the outcome.
You can spot a maximiser because they’ll have researched every TripAdvisor review before even setting foot in a restaurant. They’ll panic if, upon arrival, they realise their carefully selected choice closed up shop two months. Not that would ever happen, of course, because the maximiser will have cross-referenced with Yelp and Expedia.
I hope you’re not hungry by the way, because they’ll agonise over the menu for at least 30 minutes. Notorious second-guessers as they are, they’ll regret their choice instantly, forcing everyone else to share plates in case they develop food envy—horrible people.
Like the maximiser, but unlike the guesser, the satisficer is also a deliberator.
However, instead of looking for the best option, satisficers are happy to choose any 'good enough' option. It's not that they don't have high standards. It's just that they have a clear set of minimum requirements, and any option that exceeds those requirements is fair game – even if upon further research, it would transpire there were better options.
Satisficers have made peace with the fact that their world is a lovely shade of grey. Unless they're Labradors, in which case it's yellow. They understand that 'good' and 'bad' decisions sit on a spectrum and would be happy to settle for any option that sits on that spectrum.
Satisficers rely less on external sources, so you won't necessarily find them scoring online reviews, at least not to the same extent as the maximiser. They'll decide faster and trust their gut, although to a lesser extent than the guesser.
You'll spot a satisficer because they don't tend to agonise over past decisions. You might recognise them at dinner because they'll often choose a familiar item on the menu or base their choice on whatever everyone else in the restaurant is eating and looks tasty.
How to get better at making decisions
So who's better off then – maximisers or satisficers? The answer isn't as clear-cut as you might expect.
Maximisers overall do better in life than satisficers. Indeed, one study showed that university graduates who were maximisers found jobs with starting salaries that were, on average, twenty§ per cent higher than those of their satisficing peers.
But don't get too excited because, as the title of this research paper suggests ("Doing Better But Feeling Worse"), those same maximisers also felt a lot less satisfied in their jobs than the satisficers did.
While maximisers make objectively better choices, they also tend to be unhappier. They're often so concerned about the opportunity costs of their choices that it becomes harder for them to enjoy their achievements.
Meanwhile, satisficers allow themselves to enjoy the outcome of their decisions because they had lower expectations to begin with. In the words of 18th-century poet Alexander Pope: "Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.
But satisficing isn't always a great strategy either, especially in high-stakes areas like education or housing – at least for those with the privilege to choose. For the bigger decisions in life, it's often necessary to go beyond baseline acceptability when examining your options.
In reality, while we may prefer one or the other, most of us go back and forth between satisficing and maximising.
Regardless of your preference, here are some great tips for becoming a more confident
Tip #1: Have a strategy. First, get crystal clear on the overall objective behind your decision. To paraphrase Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, this is the one decision that removes a hundred decisions. Remind yourself to look at the big picture and determine how it aligns with your core values. Then decide your criteria for making this decision, and for each criterion, come up with a set of metrics that allows you to score all your available options.
Tip #2: Define 'good enough'. Lay out your minimum standards. What's the threshold for an option to become acceptable? Likewise, what would you consider unacceptable? Instead of thinking of the outcome of your decision as either 'right' or 'wrong', focus on making a really good decision instead. This simple reframe will save maximisers a lot of FOMO.
Tip #3: Limit your options. As I said earlier, choice overload reduces the quality of our decision-making as our system 2 can no longer analyse all available options. Narrow your options to a shortlist of three, and then follow Tips #1 and #2.
Tip #4: Set a deadline. It always starts here. Having a set date (and sticking to it) for making your decision will prevent over-thinking, even if the decision itself is not time-critical. It'll also create some urgency and stop you from over-researching your options.
Tip #5: Pivot if necessary. In the words of Tony Robbins: "Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach". Be steadfast regarding your goals, but be open to more than one particular course for achieving them. Even if your decision could have been better, you can usually adapt and adjust.
Tip #6: Move on. If you're a maximser, stop second-guessing your decision. What's done is done, and you'll never know if you'd have fared better or worse in this other universe where you made a different choice. Instead, spend your precious bandwidth looking forward rather than backward.
Tip #7: Take it, don't make it. Semantics, but 'taking' a decision has a very different ring than 'making' a decision, would you agree? Taking a decision suggests a higher level of commitment than simply making a decision. It also implies next steps and forward movement, and not looking back.
Tip #8: Let your psychological immune system kick in. In psychology, they use this term to refer to our natural tendency to restructure our thoughts in a way that allows us to make the best of any situation. If you dwell on all that could have been and never commit to your decisions, you'll stop that immune system from kicking in.
Tip #9: Accept defeat. You're not always going to get it right, and that's fine. We've all made some bad choices at one point or another. It makes us more interesting people.
Tip #10: Flip a coin. My favourite. If you're really stuck between two choices, flip a coin. Heads or tails, your emotions (system 1) will tell you soon enough which option was the frontrunner all along.
So, there you go folks – happy choosing. If you apply some of these simple rules above, you can't go wrong. And whichever choice you make, you'll be okay.
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