The paradox of choice

I’m sitting in front of my laptop, researching all the places to go and all the amazing cultures to explore. I look up fares for flights to different continents, different dates and different cities within a country. I venture through all the accommodation sites; comparing the possible hostels, hotels or Airbnb places. After days of research, you know where I end up traveling and spending the night? Nowhere.

I’m trying to decide what I want to study and what kind of profession I want to have when I graduate. I end up deciding to study psychology and try to find a job as some kind of community or social worker. I made a choice. But what do I get? Doubt. Insecurities. Dissatisfaction with my final decisions.

What’s at the base of these results of not making any choice at all or being unhappy after finally deciding to stick to one thing? The abundance of choices.

In “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” Barry Schwartz explains why the increase of options leads to less satisfaction with our decision or may cause paralyses which results in making no choice at all. This all feels contradictory with the modern idea that freedom of choice and being able to make your own decision about what you buy, how you look, your way of life, your partner and everything else is the ultimate goal and what makes us happy. Of course, there is some truth in the idea that having choices has a positive impact. It is linked to our sense of autonomy, which is one of the basic human needs (something I explained in previous blogposts) and fundamental to our happiness.

“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder.
And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
― Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

This doesn’t mean that increasing the number of possibilities automatically leads to increased happiness. In reality, we aren’t capable of independently making the best choice in a lot of cases. We’re not all trained to know what the best treatment is for some kind of disease but still the doctors presents different options. We don’t all know what the most suitable car is, which music installation has the best qualities and what food will make us the healthiest. We’re offered different possibilities, weighing pros and cons. But nobody makes the final decision for us anymore. The responsibilities shifted from educated professionals to us. We make the decisions. And if that decision ends up not being as satisfactory as we expected, it is our own fault. We are to blame. Not the doctor, not the car dealership, not the multi-media guy, not the dietician. Not to sound too nostalgic -I’m not that old after all- but things used to be simpler ‘back in the day’. You went to the doctor and he gave you the cure on a plate. The car dealer personally recommended a specific car and there were clear instructions on what you should and shouldn’t eat. With no or limited options, the responsibility lied with the outside world. ‘They’ made the decision for us. In our modern Western society, we’re the one choosing from an unlimited source of options and we’re responsible for the outcome.

This is only one aspect that supports and explains the experience that an overload of choices isn’t positive for our wellbeing. When the number of options increases, we have to spend more time trying to decide which choice will be the best one. We research, look up reviews, weigh pro and cons. We postpone and sometimes end up not making a decision at all. At the same time, we can research loads and loads on the topic but with an unlimited supply of options, we’re never sure that we will select the best available one. This uncertainty may have a paralyzing effect or may lead to dissatisfaction with our final decision. Because of the doubt, we can imagine that there was a better option and we just didn’t choose right. And even if we did make a great decision, the overload of options created such high expectations that we end up being unhappy with it. The idea is that if there are hundreds of smartphones, televisions or jeans to choose from, one must be perfect. When the final result turns out not so perfect, we just assume that perfect option is out there and we’re to blame for making the wrong choice. Choosing does feel like losing in a lot of cases.

Research in different domains supports the concept of the paradox of choice. There was a study done on the choice to participate in a voluntary retirement plan. They found that the increase of options led to less and less participation in a program, even when this meant that people missed the opportunity to save a lot of money. Psychologists Iyengar and Lepper also support the idea that less choice is more beneficial, even for marketing purposes. In 2000, they found that when shoppers were offered 6 different jams to use a discount coupon for instead of 24, they were ten times (!) more likely to buy a jar. This means that having fewer options, would be more profitable for the store.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one having a hard time trying to decide which ice cream to take on a sunny day. Chocolate chip, cookie and cream, snickers or something more summery like watermelon or strawberry? I always end up thinking about the others flavors while the ones (multiple, of course) I choose aren’t bad at all. This is only a small example of the paradox of choice in our life.

In my last semester of my Master studies in Psychology, I took a course called Gender studies and Sexual Disabilities. It wasn’t as juicy or progressive as it may sound but it did deal with the concept of gender identity and gender dissatisfaction. Our professor stated that with the increasing amount of possible gender identities, we are becoming less and less satisfied with the identity we end up choosing for ourselves. The idea is that an identity always comes from the outside and can never be perfect. When there were fewer options, it was more clear that an identity didn’t fit us. Now that the possible gender identities are growing and becoming more socially accepted, we’re starting to believe one identity can be perfect for us. This leaves more and more people disappointed when they experience they don’t fit into the picture of the identity they ‘choose’. This way we experience more failure and believe there’s always a better fit. Again, options and freedom to choose is a good thing when dealing with sexuality and gender roles. Of course our living standards and well-being have increased now that heterosexuality isn’t the only acceptable label anymore and we’re not forced into a masculine or feminine gender role as much as before. The problem lies in the unawareness that no identity is perfect and that they’re always molded from the outside. This is just one example to state that the overload of choice can be found in every aspect of our lives.

What I’m struggling a lot with lately is which choices I’m going to make for the future. I recently graduated and I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. On one side, I want to find a job in line with my education and help others, preferably youngster coming from a difficult home. On the other hand, I want to pursue my passion for traveling and just go on an adventure. Or twelve. I’ve been going back and forth, looking up possibilities, researching countries, trying to combine the two. It seems like I can’t have the best of both worlds and the endless possibilities on both sides have made me paralyzed for a long time. I have spent hours and hours shifting through destinations, unable to decide where I would like to go. The abundance of options was so overwhelming and I ended up deciding to choose for a future in in health/social care for now. The job hunt turns out to be a big disappointment and of course, now I am regretting my decision to stay at home and I can imagine travelling the world would be so much better. This thought makes me even more unhappy with my current situation. In the past the norm was to find a steady job after you graduate. The choice to travel wasn’t as evident and I can imagine this prevented a lot of headaches. I’m not saying that traveling doesn’t have an overall positive effect. I’m just saying that the increased accessibility and options make it harder to actually get to the travelling part. At least, that is my experience.

I don’t only struggle with this phenomenon when dealing with life decision but it also occurs in everyday situations. The jam experiment is a perfect example for this. For the purpose of the blog, I will keep this last part travel related. Nowadays we, middle class citizens, are capable of travelling to almost everywhere. Flight fares are becoming cheaper and cheaper, public transport more and more accessible even in developing countries, there are organizations which offer all kinds of experiences, you can travel alone or in a group, you can share a room with 10 people or couchsurf with strangers. The options really are endless. I have wasted so many hours comparing destinations, travel modes, accommodations, different hikes and so on. Most of the time I end up not booking anything while I’m financially and practically capable to do so. Why? Not because I don’t want to travel but because I’m never sure which choice would be the best one. While I believe the time is now to go on adventures and travel the world, I’m paralyzed by all the choices and the fear of regret. Rationally I know that you can’t compare a lot of destinations and every trip would be a completely different experience. I truly believe that I will enjoy myself on most adventures and still I do nothing. Okay, I do travel some but in reality I could do so much more. By being given an unlimited supply of options, I believe I’m missing out on so many amazing experiences and undervaluing the ones I do have.

What do you think of this theory? Can you find examples of situations in your life that has been affected by the overflow of choices? And how do you deal with it? Please let me now!


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