The wider the choice, the better? Psychology says no.

Why are decisions so hard?

You can do whatever you want: You can travel wherever you feel like (even North Korea, if you are into that kind of thing). You can choose between more professions than you will ever be able to find out about. You can pick your perfect type of cheese from what feels like a thousand options at the supermarket — and your ideal partner from the even bigger selection online dating has to offer.

So much freedom of choice! Isn’t that great? Shouldn’t that be an endless source of bliss?


Freedom of Choice = Happiness?

Unfortunately, this simple equation does not hold. Sure, you are probably unhappy, if by destiny you can only be a goat cheese eating goatherd, forced to spend the honeymoon of your arranged marriage in North Korea.

However, more options do not necessarily make you happier. A neat selection to choose from — for minor and major questions in life — does contribute to your well-being. But increasing alternatives only make you happier up to a certain point. From here, it can radically swing to the other extreme: Those countless options overwhelm you — leaving you anxious and stressed.

Why decisions stress you out

This is what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice”: You ought to be happy about all those opportunities that generations before you did not have yet. But probably, instead, you sometimes think: Wasn’t life a lot easier in the Middle Ages?

Craving for less choices is not such a strange thing. Actually, it is pretty reasonable from a psychological point of view, seen that there are several reasons why decisions are so hard for you:

1. Choosing means losing

Deciding for something also means: deciding against something else. Committing to a partner usually rules out all the other candidates on the market. Picking a job means ignoring the other opportunities. Psychologically, this feels like a loss to you. The more options there are, the more there is to loose.

And you do not like losing things — even if it is something you did not even have yet.

2. Responsibility and regrets

More choices also lead to more responsibility. If there is only one model of washing machines and it breaks just after your guarantee expires — well, bad luck! But it will not feel like your fault, so there is nothing to regret. If, however, you choose from 300 different models and pick the one to ruin your hardwood floor, you might face some serious regrets.

It is pretty simple: The more options there are, the less you are able to compare them all. With so many alternatives, you are bound to risk making decisions you might regret later. And that makes you anxious — maybe even so much so that you prefer making no decision at all.

3. Decisions are exhausting

This might sound stupid, but: Deciding between a muffin and a bagel for breakfast, can already affect the quality of the choices you might make later that day.

It has nothing to do with bagels or muffins (Sorry guys, none of them give you magical decision-making powers!). Decision-making just uses a lot of mental capacity — even with trivial questions.

All the small choices you make each day (stairs or elevator? steak or chicken?) already use some of your energy you might need for bigger decisions.

Too many choices can even lead to “decision fatigue” — a state in which you tend to make bad choices or avoid them altogether.

Sale is always better, right?

Why your decisions are often irrational

By now, we have established that decision-making can make you anxious, stressed and exhausted. Let us add another thing to that: You are probably kind of bad at it.

Countless studies show that people can be astonishingly irrational when it comes to decisions. Since — especially for the smaller ones — we do not have the time and energy to consider all the details, we rely on rules of thumb. They tend to be more or less effective — but often are pretty flawed upon a closer look.

Such cognitive biases let you be overconfident, ignore facts that challenge your beliefs or fixate on the latest information. They might make you buy something on special offer even when the normal priced product right next to it is cheaper. Or decide that tomorrow you will definitely start a diet so that today you can have another piece of cake.

And now?

Now that you have seen how even pretty trivial decisions — about cake, cheese or washing machines — can mess with your head, it seems pretty natural why the big ones can be scary to you. It is just human.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that you are bound to walk through life — stressed out by all the types of cheese there are, making irrational decisions until you just avoid them altogether. Don’t worry — it is not nearly as bad as that. Once you know about all those little stumbling blocks in decision making, you can do something about it. I will tell you more about it in this article.


Originally published at blog.delightex.com on January 4, 2016.