Can You Say No to Too Many Choices?

Can You Say No to Too Many Choices?

Here’s Help

During a recent trip to the market, I encountered 285 varieties and brands of cookies, 75 iced tea drinks, 40 toothpastes, 230 soups,

175 salad dressings, and 275 cereals. In a consumer electronics store, I found 110 different TVs, 30 VCRs and 50 DVD players, and stereo components that could be combined to make 6.5 million different stereo systems.

We can now choose from various phone services—local, long distance, cellular, Internet, and satellite. We can choose our healthcare plans, and even the prescription drugs and medical procedures that are marketed to us. For retirement plans, some employers offer dozens of mutual funds and 401(k)s. Universities offer an astonishing variety of general education courses and specialties to students, including designing their own majors. Thanks to the digital revolution, no matter where you are, you can always be connected and choose to work, or not work, 24 hours a day. Family arrangements have become a matter of choice—whether and when to marry, whether and when to have children (and, with “designer genes” around the corner, maybe what kind to create). Religious institutions and spiritual traditions offer every imaginable flavor of ritual and observance.

From this, we assume that we have the best of all possible worlds. Freedom requires choice, so more choice means more freedom. Enabling all to have and do exactly what they want is a good thing. Right?


The Paralysis of Liberation

Americans are wealthier and freer to choose than any people in history, yet the population as a whole is less happy than it was a generation ago, according to studies by social scientists David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University. While the gross domestic product has more than doubled in the past 30 years, the proportion of the population describing itself as “very happy” declined in the same period by about 5 percent, some 14 million people. What’s worse, more of us than ever are clinically depressed. Why?

Consider these research findings:

  • As the number of potential partners people encounter in an evening of “speed dating” increases, the number of matches they make decreases.
  • As the number of retirement plans available increases, the chances that people will choose any plan decline. For every 10 funds added to the array of options, the rate of participation drops 2 percent.
  • As the number of optional assignments available to students increases, the likelihood that they will write on any of the topics decreases, and the quality of work produced by those who do write also falls.
  • As the variety of snacks, soft drinks, and beers offered at convenience stores increases, sales volume and customer satisfaction decrease.
  • As the number of job possibilities available to college seniors increases, their satisfaction with the job search decreases. Job seekers who want the “best possible” job, while they get more and better offers than seekers aiming for “good enough” jobs, are less satisfied nonetheless. They are more stressed, anxious, pessimistic, regretful, disappointed, frustrated, and depressed.
  • As choice in medical and pharmaceutical treatment goes up, patient satisfaction goes down. Sixty-five
    percent of people polled say they want to be in charge of their treatment plan if diagnosed with cancer—unless they have already been diagnosed with cancer, among whom the percentage drops to 12.

Why More Is Less

My colleagues and I have identified several psychological factors to explain why increased choice results in decreased satisfaction.

First, increased choice places an enormous burden on people to seek the information needed for a good decision. Who has time to find the best digital camera, the best cell phone plan, retirement plan, job, or school for his children?

Second, studies show that plentiful choice increases the chances that people will regret their decisions because of all the alternatives passed up, many of which might have been better. People with high sensitivity to regret are less happy, less satisfied with life, less optimistic, and more depressed than those with low sensitivity. Indeed, worry over future regret is a major reason that people become obsessed with the best possible choice.

Have you ever bought an expensive pair of shoes only to discover that you cannot wear them for more than 10 minutes without hobbling? Did you toss them out, or are they still sitting in the back of your closet? Chances are you had a hard time throwing them away. To give the shoes away or throw them out would force you to acknowledge a mistake—a loss. Since you had so many options, you are likely to feel responsibility for the loss, as well as regret and disappointment.

Third, choice increases the sense of missed opportunities. The opportunity cost of a vacation on the beach in Cape Cod might be to miss the fabulous restaurants in the Napa Valley. If we assume that opportunity costs reduce the overall desirability of the preferred choice, then the more alternatives, the deeper our sense of loss and the less satisfaction we will derive from our decision. We also know from the research of Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., of Princeton University and his late colleague Amos Tversky of Stanford that losses—in this case, opportunity costs—have a far greater psychological impact than gains. Losses hurt more than gains make us feel good. Fearing the loss produced by the wrong vacation, we don’t take a vacation at all.

How often have you left a store empty-handed, frustrated and overwhelmed? Participants in one study we did were offered $1.50 to fill out some questionnaires. When they finished, they were offered a fancy metal pen instead of the $1.50 and were told that the pen usually costs $2. Seventy-five percent chose the pen. In a second trial, subjects were offered the $1.50 or a choice between that same metal pen and a pair of less expensive felt-tipped pens, worth about $2 together. Now fewer than 50 percent chose any pen.

Finally, too much choice raises people’s expectations of how good the chosen option will be. There seems no excuse for anything less than perfect, and when you end up with less than perfection, the fault must be yours, and you end up feeling bad rather than good. The consequences of unlimited choice may go beyond mild disappointment to actual suffering. You may conclude you can’t do anything right. Then you end up feeling worse.

Good Enough Beats Best

There are two possible goals people have in making a decision. Some aim to find something good enough—a good-enough cereal, stereo, car, mutual fund, college—even spouse. We call them satisficers. Those who seek the best we call maximizers. The satisficer keeps looking until he finds something good enough, and then doesn’t look back. The maximizer, by contrast, can’t know he has the best without examining all the possibilities. Since this is impossible, maximizers are plagued by doubt, and when they finally do choose, they fear that they could have done better. Maximizers take longer to decide than satisficers, and though they may have better results, they are less satisfied. They are also unhappier, more pessimistic, less satisfied with life, and more depressed than satisficers.

I’m usually a satisficer, but here’s what happened to me a few years ago when I went to buy a pair of jeans. I asked the saleswoman for a pair in my size, and she asked, “Do you want slim fit, relaxed fit, easy fit, boot cut, or straight leg, button fly or zipper fly, stonewashed, acid washed, distressed, or unwashed?” What had previously been a 30-second task had become a major project. And I found that for the first time in my life, I cared about the fit. I had been nudged in the direction of maximizing. I ended up with a pair that fit better than the old ones, but—I was disappointed that they didn’t fit perfectly.

American college students now experience a kind of massive unhappiness that has them flocking to campus counseling centers and taking antidepressants in record numbers. This is especially true in the most elite institutions, populated by students with the talent and intelligence to go in various directions. As graduation nears, they are plagued by a sense that there is some “right” thing to do. Going through one door closes others, and they don’t want to close any doors until they know which is the right one. Were the possibilities more limited, they would find it much easier to decide. This is true in terms of mating as well—note the falling marriage rate. We should also rethink our worship of choice.

We can begin to structure choice in a more helpful way. For instance, we know that people are heavily influenced by a default option. In much of Europe, the default option when you get a driver’s license is to be an organ donor, and 90 percent of European drivers are. In the U.S., the reverse is true, and only 20 percent of us are organ donors. Similarly, a study in the U.S. found that when the default option is to have money deducted from your paycheck and put into a retirement account, savings participation is much higher than when the default is no deduction.

Some theorists propose that policies should be structured with limited options, with the default being that which best enhances welfare on average, with a choice to opt out altogether. In this way, freedom of choice is retained without overwhelming people, but the default is probably in their best interests. In the U.S., we should consider what this view implies for privatization of state retirement pensions, school choice, choice by retirees of prescription drug plans, retirement plans, and patient autonomy in medical practice.

Constraining Ourselves through Relationships

A significant determinant of well-being is the web of close relationships in our lives. Yet close relations and their attendant responsibilities constrain us rather than liberate us. We can’t do whatever we like. But perhaps these constraints are not a price we pay, but a benefit we derive from these relations.

I once saw a New Yorker cartoon that perfectly illustrated something counterintuitive about choice. Two goldfish, parent and offspring, are swimming in a tiny fishbowl. “You can be anything you want to be,” says the parent. “No limits.” We, the sophisticated readers, are supposed to catch the irony of the myopic parent fish telling its young about how copious the possibilities are, in a world in which virtually every possibility is foreclosed. But my own view is that the parent fish has it right. People say they want a world where everything is possible—so much do they value freedom—particularly if they are young and multitalented. But they don’t understand that people want choice within limits, freedom with constraints. By providing unlimited choice, we shatter the fishbowl. And the result is not satisfaction, but anxiety; not liberation, but tyranny. We can say no to the tyranny of choice.

Are You a Maximizer or a Satisficer?

Read each statement and answer how much you disagree or agree.

1. When faced with a choice, I try to imagine all the other possibilities, even those not present at the moment.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

2. No matter how satisfied I am with my job, it’s only right to look out for better opportunities.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

3. When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

4. I treat relationships like clothing: I expect to try on a lot of them before finding the perfect fit.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

5. I often find it difficult to shop for a gift for a friend. Renting videos is difficult. I’m always struggling to pick the best one.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

6. I find writing difficult, even if it’s just a letter to a friend, because it’s so hard to word things just right. I often do several drafts of even simple things.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

7. No matter what I do, I have the highest standards for myself.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

8. I often fantasize about living in ways quite different from my actual life.
Disagree completely 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Agree completely

If your average score is higher than four, the scale’s midpoint, you tend to be a maximizer. If you score is lower than four, you tend to be a satisficer. People who score highest on the test—the greatest maximizers—are more likely to make better objective choices than satisficers, but tend to be the least happy with the fruits of their efforts. They are more prone to regret a purchase, and their sense of well-being takes longer to recover. They also tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers do.

Barry Schwartz is Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, where he has taught since 1971. He is the author of more than 100 articles and 10 books. His most recent book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less is the basis for this article.

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