What is the paradox of choice?
You know the feeling. You're at a new restaurant. The menu comes and it's seventeen pages of bewildering option after bewildering option — and that's just their chicken section. What sounds satisfying? Is it the cilantro-based chicken chutney malai, the trusty chicken tikka makhanwala or the continental chicken in creamy tarragon and thyme-infused mushroom sauce? Beef, maybe? The steak with cherry and walnut sauce could be yum. What to choose? It's confusing. And now, the waiter's back:
"What will you be having tonight?"
You'll pick something. Chances are you'll regret it. When the food finally arrives, the fish dish somebody else picked will look far more tantalizing than whatever you ended up settling for. Often, too much choice overwhelms rather than frees us.
We think that maximizing our options maximizes our freedom. We think that the more choice we have, the happier we will be with our decisions. More options, more freedom; more freedom, more happiness — right? Not always.
There is indeed such a thing as too much choice. There is a threshold where more choice becomes a burden. After a certain point, more choice equals more confusion and frustration. It's what the psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice. Too much choice often leads to decreased happiness, decreased satisfaction and sometimes even option paralysis.
The more options there are, the easier it is for you to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose. — Barry Schwartz
Why then do we think more choice = more freedom?
Why then do we often think that more choices will automatically equal more happiness? It is because we know that having no options certainly minimizes our freedom and happiness. Indeed, if you are hungry and have no food at all —and no way to get food — you certainly won't have much freedom or happiness. This is true for even less trivial matters. Your finances, for example. When you have zero options, you have little to no freedom. And since we know this to be true, it is easy to assume that an infinite number of choices offer us infinite paths to happiness (only to find infinite confusion).
Seven may be your magic number:
What's the balance, then? At what point does a number of choices go from freeing to paralyzing? I don't know. No one really knows, but it's a question that psychologists and economists have tried answering indirectly since at least the 1950s.
In 1956, psychologist George Miller studied the limits of human capacity to process information. He published an influential paper that posited that humans can only store between 5–9 items in their short-term memories. The paper's title captures this: “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” Basically, once you have more than seven options to choose from, it becomes harder for your brain to tell the choices apart, and easier for the information overload to result in confusion.
While studying how to make choosing easier, Sheena Iyengar, perhaps the world's foremost expert on choice, held a series of experiments that proved Miller's findings. At a local food market, on a regular day, customers would find a display table with 24 varieties of jams. On another day, customers would only find 6 different jam varieties. While the display tables with 24 kinds of jam drew more interest, guess which tables led to more sales? Yup — people were about ten times less likely to buy a jar of jam on the days where they had too many options. While choice seems appealing at first, having more than seven options (plus, or minus two) paralyzes the decider.
When you give people 10 or more options when they’re making a choice, they make poorer decisions, whether it be health care, investment, other critical areas. Yet still, many of us believe that we should make all our own choices and seek out even more of them. — Prof. Sheena Iyengar
Freedom from choice vs freedom of choice:
As a side note: Our increasingly Americanized global culture values individual freedom of choice, often at the expense of freedom from choice. Many non-Western cultures recognize the value of collective, rather than individual, choice. From trivial decisions such as whether you can have sugar in your Japanese green tea, to more life-altering decisions such as who you would marry if you were a young pre-colonial African: many non-Western cultures prioritized freedom from choice. Societal systems would just make some decisions for you. And you would not necessarily be unhappier.
In a culture that preaches and worships infinite choice, Steve Jobs springs to mind as someone who recognized the value of freedom from choice. From 1998 until he dies, he wore his signature black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers every day. Inspired by a visit to Sony in Japan, Jobs asked the designer Issey Miyake to make him a uniform so he is freed from having to pick out an outfit every day. Freedom from trivial choice. Even in the choices Apple under Jobs would offer consumers — Jobs understood the value of offering his customers freedom from choice. E.g. while every other company would make their laptops colorful and customizable, Apple's Macbooks all came in the same uni-body aluminum look. He famously said: “Some people say, 'Give the customers what they want.' But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.” Apple would simplify choice for their customer by making hundreds of choices on their behalf when deciding what a great tech device should be. And the customers rewarded this approach handsomely!
How do we solve the paradox of choice?
Now that having more choice does not necessarily translate to people making better choices, how can we ourselves beat this paradox of choice? Our globalized and connected world will not stop overloading us with options just because we recognize this now.
Here are five ways you can make better decisions today in light of choice overload. Think of these as decision-making heuristics: tools you can keep in the back of your head to make better decisions more often.
- Cut down the number of choices you have to make. Humans are not designed to make thousands of quality decisions a day. Purposefully decide the types of things you want to actively decide on — cut out the rest. Like Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg also generally wears the same items of clothing everyday. He says he does this to allow himself to concentrate on "real work" and not have to make decisions he views as "frivolous." Focus your decision-making on the stuff that matters; most stuff doesn’t matter.
- Use an economics trick called satisficing. Have standards, pick the first thing that meets those standards. (I’m simplifying satisficing here — but my definition is itself satisficing.) The word comes from combining “satisfactory” and “suffice.” It is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met. Basically, next time you're at a restaurant going through the menu, pick the first thing you see that you like. Then just close the menu and hand it back.
- Systematize and automate! Make it easy for yourself to make good decisions. Wherever possible, design a system based on your principles that makes your repetitive decisions on your behalf. This isn't as complicated as it may sound. Here's a simple personal example — my friends and I have a joint savings and investment fund. I figured out quite early that placing a standing instruction with my bank to move money from my account to the fund's account automatically every month would be the easiest way for me to save consistently into the fund. The years I have not done this, I have struggled to save every month into the fund — instead, making a few large payments some months to cover for the months I did not save. Without the system, what is meant to be a savings habit becomes merely an obligation. Wherever possible, automate.
- Use the "Hell yes, or no!" heuristic. Every time you say yes to something, you have said no to a thousand other things. Opportunity cost is a useful mental model for life, not just for economics. It means your choices matter. To make your choices count, say yes to the stuff that truly energize you. Especially for important decisions. Simplify your huge decisions by applying a “hell yes or not at all” attitude. In the blog post that popularized this heuristic, Derek Sivers says:
When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” — then say “no.”
When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!”
5. Categorize. We find choice most overwhelming when we cannot decipher the difference between the many options we’re deciding between. Taking a moment to categorize our options helps make our decisions less stressful and more efficient. Categorization often involves generalization. By grouping your options into groups with discernible differences, categorization is essentially a decision-making step you do before decision-making. An important pre-decision decision. It helps. Let’s say you want to paint your living room wall. Which of these choices is easier to make? Set 1: Aquamarine vs ultramarine vs indigo vs azure vs cobalt vs sapphire vs bleu de france vs teal vs chartreuse vs shamrock vs juniper vs parakeet vs emerald vs pistachio. Set 2: A shade of blue that I’ll like vs a shade of green that I’ll like. If you’re like most people, set 2 will stress you out a lot less — both are essentially shades of blue and green, but set 2 helps you focus on what you like, rather than the paint manufacturer’s marketing-fueled personalization options.
Each choice you face will require a different approach to arrive at an efficient and satisfying decision. With these five tools in your arsenal, though, you’re one step closer to reduce the sense of overwhelming dread that choice overload often leaves us with. Poetically almost, as I finished writing this off at a coffee shop, the waiter brought me a three-page drinks menu. I am proud to say I satisficed. Took a glance down the menu, liked the sound of frappuccino with gingerbread syrup, and I didn’t look any further. Decisions, decisions — no more!