Too many choices are killing us

Part 1 of a two-part series on choice, its unintended effects and ways to get maximum satisfaction from our decisions

Note: Part 2 is now available here.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Before the days of online shopping, buying things was straightforward — you drove to the nearest store, looked at what was available and made your decision right there and then. The costs, both in terms of time and effort, of scouring the market looking for the ideal option were simply too high. Now, with the ubiquity of Amazon and others, you can rummage through millions of products to find something that is exactly right for you, all from the comfort of your toilet seat. This profusion of choice is not just limited to shopping — right from where we want to work and live, to who we want to do it with, there are no constraints on what is possible. As compared to previous generations, we can exercise choice more freely and express our individual preferences with greater abandon. Surely, this era of unlimited choice has made us happier and more satisfied with our lives?

Well, not exactly.

While an explosion in the number of options has allowed us to exercise more autonomy, it has also begun to exact a heavy price. In addition to the sheer effort it takes to evaluate all available options in pursuit of the ideal, we are now also more prone to negative psychological effects of decision making — regret, unmet expectations and guilt. Did we pick the right vacation destination? Should we have searched more before buying the expensive TV? Was it a mistake not to take that job when we had the chance? The basic premise of progress was that individuals need more freedom, not less. So how did we end up in a place where the ability to choose without constraints has become a source of stress?

The concept of choice is inextricably linked with being human. In addition to helping us get the things we want, choice is the instrument through which we can exert control over our circumstances and the larger world. Choice gives us a sense of control, that we have the power to influence what happens to us. This feeling of being in charge of our own life is extremely critical for our psychological well-being and losing it can have disastrous consequences, as can be seen from the example of those suffering from depression.

Given the importance of choice as a measure of our autonomy, we almost always resist any constraints on our freedom to choose. We seek more and more options because we are expected to make decisions only after all options have been thoroughly exhausted. American scholar Fred Hirsch called this the tyranny of small decisions — we say yes to more options in almost every domain, not realizing that on a cumulative level, the number of options are becoming overwhelming. The unfortunate result is that we have little energy or time left for decisions that truly matter.

Before we begin to look for ways to resist the onslaught of choice in modern life, it is important to understand what exactly happens when we make the exercise of choice an end in itself. By insisting on more and more options to choose from, we unleash phenomena that work invisibly to undermine any satisfaction we hoped to get from our decisions. Understanding these insidious side effects is the first step to free ourselves from the tyranny of excessive choice.

The Downsides of Choice

I. Magnifying our inherent failings

Any decision involves multiple stages: choosing a goal that is important; finding relevant information to help us decide; and finally, making the decision. The big idea is that even in a single decision with only a few options to consider, there is a significant possibility of error due to our inherent mental biases. So when we increase the number of options, we are in a way sabotaging our own efforts to choose correctly.

For starters, we fix our goals based on how we think certain outcomes will make us feel in the future. But as I wrote in an earlier article, we routinely mis-predict our emotional reactions to future events. This is so because our expectation of an event, the actual experience of it, and then the memory of that event never really align; this means that we fail not only to predict our emotions but also to draw accurate feedback from our experiences. Hence, we never truly know what goals we should be chasing.

Even if we manage to set a relevant goal for ourselves, there are still a host of mental booby traps that we must navigate next. Heuristics such as the availability bias, loss aversion, sunk cost fallacy, and the endowment effect systematically lead us to making choices that are irrational but don’t seem so in the moment. Essentially, we are not the rational human beings that classical economic theory says we are, because evolution has hardwired us to make these routine thinking errors. By increasing the number of options under consideration, we are multiplying the probability of errors in judgment.

II. Facing the two-edged sword of opportunity costs

We never make a decision in vacuum because the goodness (or badness) of anything can be expressed only in relative terms i.e. it is impossible to say why something is the ‘best’ unless we know what it is being compared against. In the domain of decision-making, this idea is manifested in the concept of opportunity costs, which means that we not only pay for the chosen option but also for giving up the next best option. Opportunity costs make us aware of what we are giving up and therefore have the potential to slightly reduce our satisfaction from the chosen alternative. But overall, opportunity costs provide a simple and efficient way to choose between multiple options.

However, there is an important caveat to calculating opportunity costs which we often ignore at our own peril: we should consider only the second-best option and no more. We tend to make this error because each option in our consideration set might be the best one on some specific feature we value, even if at an overall level it is ranked much lower than other options. Therefore, when thinking of opportunity costs, we don’t just give up the second-ranked option but are in effect missing out on all the desirable features of the remaining options. This exaggerated opportunity cost in turn makes us much more dissatisfied than we ought to be with our chosen alternative. To add further to our woes, our imaginations work effortlessly to conjure up an ideal (but non-existent) option that combines the attractive features of all options, thus further tormenting us about what could’ve been.

III. The pain of trade-offs

A more general form of opportunity costs is the idea of trade-offs. For example, when we choose to go out for a meal instead of going to the cinema, we are making a trade-off; the opportunity cost in this case is the entertainment we have foregone in order to have a meal at a restaurant. As it turns out, we find making trade-offs extremely unsettling and are willing to avoid them even if it means postponing decisions or just not taking one at all. This effect is especially heightened when we are faced with multiple options.

When we have to choose between two or more alternatives, we essentially encounter a conflict. As we grapple with the pro and cons of the available options, the trade-offs we need to make come into full view. Since losses hurt us more than gains, all options now start to look unappealing, including the one we decide to go ahead with. When forced into a corner like this, we look for ways to release the tension by either delaying the decision or just dropping the whole thing together. In most cases, we willingly defer to the judgment of others, if only to save ourselves from the psychological discomfort of making trade-offs.

In addition to lowering our satisfaction with decisions, trade-offs also affect their quality because the associated negative emotions impair our ability to think clearly. Complex decisions, requiring multiple considerations, demand our best thinking but it is precisely such situations that involve trade-offs and hence the possibility of anxiety and stress. The trick lies in having just enough options to be able to make a sound decision without having to experience the dissatisfaction associated with trade-offs.

IV. The silent, eroding effects of adaptation

Why do billionaires tend to become miserable despite their riches? Why do our new gadgets lose their attraction in a few weeks? Why can’t you eat your favorite dish three days in a row? One word: adaptation. Novelty, in any shape or form, is short-lived because it cannot surpass the mind’s tendency to adapt to almost any circumstance. If not for this ability, we would be unable to function when things are bad; on the flip side, things that give us pleasure today will cease to do so in the near future.

In the domain of choice, adaptation can set us up for dissatisfaction because it makes us question the effort we put in to make a decision. A new TV just doesn’t seem as great after a while and the realization that we spent weeks searching for it becomes a source of disappointment. What exacerbates this effect is that we almost always fail to predict that adaptation will invariably kick in at some time in the future. As a result, we continue to take decisions based on how they make us feel today, completely discounting the fact that the positive feelings will not sustain themselves in the future.

V. Why justifying decisions is a bad idea

When faced with the prospect of picking one out of a number of options, we usually engage in a mental dialog with ourselves, listing the pros and cons of each option and explaining why we favor one over the others. In contrast, when faced with only two alternatives, we usually know in our gut what the right decision is. As a result, not only is the decision taken much quicker, but also the probability of it being correct is much higher. It’s almost as if going through the trouble of being more methodical is not worth it.

Now, when there are more options involved, the probability of making a mistake is obviously higher. But surprisingly, the act of explaining our decision can also push us in the wrong direction, simply because what we articulate might not be the actual reason behind our choice. Often, it is our subconscious mind that has a more powerful influence on our behavior, rather than any objective factor. However, when we verbalize our reasons for a decision, we are only able to access the obvious factors, and not the ones below the surface of consciousness. As a result, we ignore what our gut is telling us and make the choice that seems more rational in the moment. Over time, however, the articulated reasons fade away and we begin to wonder why we made that decision in the first place.

VI. Reversible decisions: Blessing or curse?

A distinctively modern feature of life is the freedom to reverse many of our decisions. From returning purchased goods to breaking off relationships, we don’t have to live forever with the consequences of our decisions if we don’t want to. Rationally, this should make us happier and less prone to regret, but the reality is a little more twisted than that.

When the possibility of reversing a decision is non-existent, we can psychologically create a narrative that helps us accept the choice we’ve made. This story in turn, helps us make the best of a situation that has no possibility of an exit. On the other hand, if a decision can be nullified in the future, we just don’t do enough psychological work to justify the choice to ourselves, and therefore always keep wondering if we are better off going back to status quo. The embers of this doubt keep on glowing in the recesses of our mind and keep us mildly anxious all the time.

VII. The inevitability of egret

Whenever we take a decision, we open ourselves up to the ever-looming threat of regret. Even if a decision turns out fine, we might still wonder if we could’ve done better — such is the power regret holds over us. While the experience of regret usually comes after a decision, sometimes we can feel it even before we make our choice. This anticipated regret is especially heightened when we have a number of options, specifically because the chances of picking the wrong one in this case are higher. While post-decision regret can make us dissatisfied with our choice, anticipated regret can just freeze us into inaction.

Even though regret seems inevitable, there is a direct relationship between it and the number of options we consider while making a decision. Firstly, When there are a lot of options to choose from, we are not only expected to pick the best one but also be willing to take responsibility for our decision. When there isn’t much to choose from, you can’t really be faulted for picking whatever is on offer. In an era of abundance, however, there really is no excuse for picking the wrong option — the blame, as it were, lies squarely on your shoulders.

Secondly, when faced with a lot of options, it is easier to generate counterfactual scenarios i.e. imagine alternative realities in which we would have chosen a different alternative. Counterfactual thinking is triggered usually after an unpleasant event such as when we make an incorrect decision. Thinking of alternative scenarios in this case tends to further cause negative emotion which in turn generates even more counterfactual thinking. What makes this downward spiral worse is that it is us who is responsible for not picking the right option in the first place.

The downside of excessive choice are real and ever-present. The prospect of unbounded choice, which was supposed to be a liberator, has turned out to be the bane of modern existence. In Part 2, we look at ways to fight back and derive more joy from our decisions.