The Paradox of Choice: More Options, More Chaos
Having more options can deteriorate your quality of life
When Richard Feynman was in college at MIT, he noticed that every time he was at a restaurant, he would constantly ponder upon what type of dessert he would eat that night. Ice cream? Cheesecake? Pudding? And what flavour?
There are just too many choices!
So how did Feynman respond to this?
He decided from that day on that it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again.
If you’re like me, you were probably raised to believe that having more freedom with your choices is a positive thing. It’s hard to imagine having more options being negative at all.
Rationally, a person who can choose from having ice cream or cheesecake should be better off than a person who can only choose ice cream right?
Yet I’m sure all of you can understand Mr. Feynman’s entertaining situation.
Freedom and Happiness
It is often believed that freedom leads to happiness. America is depicted as the land of freedom, where you can do whatever you want entailing a transformation of dreams into reality.
Millions of immigrants have escaped their authoritarian regimes which hold them ‘captive’ to join more democratic cultures only to learn that perhaps the causation of happiness with freedom isn’t so clear cut after all.
While I still believe that having more choices can have a positive impact on your life, I also believe that it can make us unhappy, and possibly lead to indecisiveness.
The economics and decision theory concepts ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘loss aversion’ together explain this phenomenon quite effectively.
Opportunity cost is the loss of other alternatives when a decision is made and loss aversion is the human tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains.
When we have more choices, the opportunity cost of our decisions increase. If we choose to buy one type of cereal, suddenly it feels as if we’re foregoing the opportunity to buy all the other cereals (unless we’re buying every single type of cereal that exists which would be ridiculous, or genius).
However, if we have only one cereal to choose, the opportunity cost is much less apparent. Since the theory of loss aversion dictates that we strongly prefer avoiding losses, it makes sense why we feel so uncomfortable when there are so many choices we don’t know what to choose!
An everyday example of this in our lives is grocery shopping for bread. There are so many different types of bread. A few examples include:
If there was only one type of bread, would your life really change that much?
These types of breads are all astonishingly similar and unless you have a serious allergy to one, your life won’t really be impacted if you picked the same bread every time.
Yet seeing all the different types of breads does in some way make us uncomfortable, because what if we make the wrong choice?
Knowing that an abundance of choices can lead to unhappiness, and even paralysis begs the question:
‘Should we limit our own choices as well as the choices of others?’
The intuitive answer to this question would be ‘no’ because choices are a gateway to freedom and autonomy, and psychological studies illustrate that freedom and autonomy are core components of an individual’s well-being.
However, I can propose tools to manage this phenomenon. We can use a tactic from Mr. Feynman’s example of choosing chocolate ice cream as dessert for the rest of his life where he intentionally constrained himself to one option to solve this problem.
The same tactic is used by many people in power (namely Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama) who confine themselves to one single outfit — and in Obama’s case, two. This reduces their cognitive load in making decisions which have a low impact on their lives, and allow them to focus on the decisions which matter more.
Of course, you can’t completely model your life after these men. Perhaps you don’t feel as indifferent about dessert or clothing as they do. My point is that you can apply the same logic over many other situations.
Buying the same cereal every time, making the same breakfast every day, buying the same brand of t-shirts every time are a few examples you can add to your life.
But how do we decide which choice to commit to in the first place?
To decide which choice to commit to, you will first have to figure out your goals. Then you will need to figure out the perfect solution to your goal. Often, there won’t be one.
There wasn’t one dessert that was perfect for Feynman. In this case, when you go looking for the perfect outfit or cereal or whatever it is you’re constraining yourself to, it’s up to you to find the solution matches closest to your perfect solution.
If you really can’t choose, remember that any choice is better than no choice at all.
This solution to the paradox of choice is my favourite one as it sets up routines in your life which allow you to focus on more important things — relationships, business, health etc.
It gives you a sense of autonomy, because you’re setting constraints on yourself, not anyone else.
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. — Igor Stravinsky
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