The Paradox of Choice

It’s not just anxiety, it makes me lazy as ****

My apology for the **** above, but I’m just frustrated. Like really frustrated. Why? Because I just can’t make up my mind, I have too many choices! I’ve been troubled by this issue quite a lot lately, so I decided to google “too many choices”, and lo and behold, it is actually a psychological problem quite prominent in behavioral economics, with a number of studies and books published.

The title of this post is “borrowed” from a book of the same name by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, published in 2004. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read the book, because I have not (here’s the Wikipedia page, and here’s the book page on Amazon, if you are interested), but I have watched Barry’s TED talk and I recommend it! It’s an interesting, funny talk, and a lot faster than reading a book! Basically the points are 1) some choices are better than no choices but there can be TOO many 2) When there’re TOO many options, people may have difficulty picking one, even to the point of being paralyzed 3)With so many choices available people develop high expectations and thus less likely to be satisfied with their actual chosen one(s) and 4) When faced with such dissatisfaction, we are likely to blame OURSELVES for making that self-perceived poor choice.

To be honest I was not aware of this book prior to writing this post (well, or any other book on this matter, and there are actually a decent number of them), but I have come across studies in behavioral economics where customers facing a larger assortment of products are LESS likely to make a purchase. Some other researchers have pointed to the distinction between being overwhelmed by number of choices and being perplexed by lack of information on the properties/differences of those choices. I agree that the information thing is a valid point, but it does not take away from the daunting challenge of picking and choosing. In fact, the more you KNOW about properties and stuff like that, the more you have to THINK and consider, and when the number of options passes a certain threshold, compare-and-contrast becomes too much.

In his TED talk, Barry used the numbers of choices of various consumer products as examples. Those are quite large numbers, and that was years ago! Recently, however, there have been attempts by retailers to scale back on the different lines of products they carry, although I don’t know how much of that decision is based on “the art of choosing” and how much is inventory management. Whatever it is, I welcome that move. It makes shopping easier for me. I am not that picky, most of the time; but when there’s too much to choose from, I’m kind of forced to be picky. So I would pick the “easy-way-out”: not buying anything.

Alright, now back to the opening line of this post. While I’m annoyed by the inconvenience of having to choose stuff to buy, I’m not frustrated by it. It is the choices that I have to make in my everyday life that drive me mad. The main one is: what should I do this morning/today/tonight to be productive? I have quite a long list of things I could and should do, but what has happened way more often than I’d like is that I’d spend a decent amount of time considering the options, can’t make up my mind, and then pick “the easy way out”, which in this case is likely surfing the webs or go to bed. So as the result of having too many options to be productive, I end up not being productive at all! Now, I understand that a big part of this is my own problem; someone with more resolve/determination would get things done no matter what. That said, I am not that someone, so I have to deal with it my own way, and it may seem counter-intuitive at first, but I actually ADD more option, but just ONE more.

I call it the default option, something I’d pick whenever I can’t make up my mind when surrounded by all the choices. Starting with something simple like clothing. Everyone probably knows by now how Facebook founder dresses, he has ONLY one choice (that infamous grey T-shirt) so basically he doesn’t have to choose at all, that makes dressing up easier and saves time. It doesn’t work for me! (or more like I don’t want it). I am a girl, I like clothes, I like mixing and matching them, and I very much DON’T want to wear the same style/set all week. But when I can’t choose, or simply just not enough time to go through that process, I’d go with my default option: black jeans, black T-shirt and shoes (All-black always looks good, my friends 😀 ) And I use this strategy for my productivity problem as well. If I find myself thinking “what should I do now” for more than 15 minutes, I’d go with the default “productivity option”: learning German. I pick this to be the default choice because it’s never a bad time to practice language, and it can be done in small chunks, so if something else comes up or I actually decide on doing other things, I can easily put it aside. Works quite well.

I am relieved that I’m not alone in this suffering. I think it’s okay to have more choices; we just have to take the plunge at some point. And as Barry said in his TED talk “The secret to happiness is to have low expectations”, a lesson which should NOT be taken out of context. I would like to modify this a little: The secret to happiness is knowing when to have low expectations.

Happy choosing!


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