Here’s how to cope with the paradox of choice.
By Lena Sotherin
You’re standing in the supermarket, your shopping basket in your hand. You’re looking at the breakfast cereal. There are dozens of different varieties, and they all look good.
Which to choose? You’re frozen with indecision.
Or you’re sitting opposite a consultant in a cellphone store, trying to understand the difference between a wide range of smartphones and an even greater range of voice, SMS, and data plans.
Baffled, you give up, and say you’ll come back another day.
Or maybe you’re flicking through the options on Netflix, where there’s always so much to watch … and at the same time, just too much to choose from.
So, you switch off, and you go back to reading a book. But wait. Which book?
When this happens, you’re caught in a trap that scientists call The Paradox of Choice. That’s the title of a book by Professor Barry Schwartz, an expert on the challenges of making choices in the free marketplace.
All this choice, says Schwartz, doesn’t just make things harder for us, it makes things worse. With so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all.
In a famous study on choice, researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up two jam and chocolate tasting booths in an upmarket gourmet store. One booth had six options, and one had 30.
The result? 30 percent of the consumers faced with a smaller choice made a purchase, compared to only three percent of those faced with the bigger selection.
When their original set of options had been limited, participants reported greater satisfaction with their selections.
The more complex the decision-making process, the more likely it is for people to feel overwhelmed. Too much choice can also lead to disappointment and self-blame.
Not a problem when you’re choosing between chocolate and vanilla gelato; a big problem when you’re weighing a medical procedure or an insurance policy.
In The Art of Choosing, Iyejgar calls this the “choice overload problem”, and suggests various coping techniques.
Cut out extraneous alternatives, categorise for your needs, and think carefully about the outcomes of each choice.
In his book, Professor Schwartz has a simpler suggestion. Lower your expectations, he says.
“Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be,” he writes. “And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.”
- This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.