Choice: it’s a paradox

choiceChoice is a good thing, right? I mean, if I have lots of choices, I should wind up with the best, most satisfying thing, whatever thing I’m considering at the moment. If there’s only one possibility (or maybe two), it’s not very satisfying. I chafe at not having options.

Theoretically, an ever-expanding number of choices should lead to higher life satisfaction. That’s the American way, isn’t it? There’s a paradox here, according to professor and author Barry Schwartz. The reality is that too many choices actually result in less satisfaction because we’re paralyzed when making a choice, accepting accountability for it, and spending so much time making that “perfect” choice.

Watch Schwartz’s TED talk. It’s fascinating. He’ll tell you that American ideals glorify choices – we can choose to do what we want, study what we like, buy whatever kind of clothes we prefer, and on and on. The embedded belief in our society is this, he says: to maximize freedom, we must maximize our choices. It’s a “maximize” mindset. More is always better. The more choices, the more freedom to choose what best suits us, and the more satisfaction with life.

Oddly enough, though, when we have too many possibilities arrayed before us, our satisfaction takes a nosedive. Schwartz’s research shows that, yes, choice is a good thing … but only to a point. When we have dozens of options, we have to eat up our precious time and make the effort to examine each one for its plusses and minuses. Then, once we choose, we’re left to wonder if perhaps the other one might have worked better after all.

I’ve lived this. I’ve bought three houses in my life. Leaving the first one for the second was easy; it really was a good choice. Even so, there were always elements of what I left behind that trumped what I got:

  • A higher payment vs. a house that was nearly paid off,
  • A more desirable location but a busier road,
  • A larger yard but a very unusable slope,
  • A half bath in the master bedroom but a much smaller shower … and so on.

Leaving the second house for my current home provided the same angst, which surprisingly had the bonus of resurrecting the angst of leaving my first, almost-paid-off domicile!

That’s the “maximizer” mindset at work, and for a time it dimmed my satisfaction with my current home in both instances. The thought that arose, each time, was “maybe we made the wrong choice.”

The effect of too many choices is that we spend way too much time making them, which steals time from the things we want to do. While I search for the right shampoo (and I’ve easily spent 15 minutes in that aisle), I could otherwise simply find one that meets the basic qualifications – that satisfies – select it and be on my way to my hammock to relax in the sun and read.

How we deal with all those choices, if we’re so set on maximizing them, is to simply choose what we’re most familiar with or what’s heavily advertised and memorable. And that basically means we don’t even have to think at all – ah, if it’s a popular brand name, it MUST be good; if it’s $5 more, it’s obviously better for my hair.

So my maximizing mindset paralyzes me and keeps me tied to my choice for as long as I ponder. I’m no more free than a dog on a chain. And if those choices are difficult ones, I further wrestle with the consequences of my actions. What if I choose the wrong one? What if I choose one that’s OK but didn’t realize the other one was actually better? Who can advise me? Whose advice should I heed? No wonder magazines like Consumer Reports are so popular, along with forums and websites that talk about the top 10s, best buys, smartest deals. Take a look the next time you search for consumer advice – the lists undoubtedly vary from site to site or else they’re all recognizable brands. The devil you know rather than the devil you don’t.

Charlie and I recently looked at new wedding bands. We searched the electronic database of a custom ring-maker who has literally hundreds of possibilities on his website, dozens of variations for each of those possibilities, too. We pored over the options for more than a month. What concern do you think kept rising? Are we making the right choice? Will we be unhappy with the result and have no one to blame but ourselves?

Paralysis in action. We made no choice rather than making any choice at all. Finally, we trekked to the dreaded mall to look at traditional rings, thinking we might simply resort to a known commodity. There you have it: Barry Schwartz’s theory in action.

I recently experienced a visualization designed to identify “Secret Selves” (fun stuff). When I am presented with too many choices, I freeze, get frustrated, and move into the “grip” of negativity. But this visualization helped me figure out just what happens to me – and it is exactly this concept. I liken it to being a “kid in a candy store.” Imagine a fragrant, colorful store with every kind of candy imaginable in every corner and a child with a sweet tooth faced with the decision of choosing one of those candies.

What arose from my experience was a way to deal with this paradox of choice, as Schwartz calls it. I just imagine handing the child one piece of scrumptious candy in the middle of the store and telling him (yeah, it’s a boy). “here you go. This one is extra special and you’ll like it. Go sit on the swing outside and savor it. Another day we’ll try a different one.”

See, I need to make a decision, and rather than be gripped by analysis paralysis, can make and savor a choice that satisfies, knowing I can return another time and try something different.

Maybe the key to happiness isn’t choice. Maybe, as Schwartz half-jokingly says, the key is low expectations. Now, that’s humor at work, but there’s still truth there. I’m not sure it’s low expectations so much as realistic expectations – or perhaps having no expectations at all. If I make a choice and it turns out to be the wrong one, can I not just see it as a learning experience? That’s neither a low nor a realistic expectation. It’s actually no expectation at all.

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