Free will is great, right? We get to choose what we wear. We get to choose what we eat. We get to choose where we go. We get to choose what we want our lives to be like. Isn’t this the much-lauded ‘American Dream‘?
Then why, when so many of us kids are faced with the classic ‘what do you want to do?‘ question, do we freeze up and wish someone else could tell us what to do? When going out to eat and offered a menu with so many great options, why do we opt for the same old even if we might want to experiment? Some of us might seem to have it together, but most of us have no clue.
This paralysis is known as the Paradox of Choice. Of course, nobody wants to live in a place where your life is dictated by someone else and you only have one choice (is it still a choice? Yes, I guess – the other choice is death). But I’m sure you must have felt the stress of having too many choices and not knowing which one to pick.
There seems to be a threshold where the pleasure of being able to make optimum decisions changes to the pain of having too much choice. This can be shown by the graph below:
Where Does This Stress Come From?
We love choices because it allows us to make a decision which we hope will positively impact our lives. It satisfies our greedy side to know that what we are choosing is the optimum way to increase our satisfaction. This was all fine when we were back in our troglodytic age, with the choice between having a rabbit or a deer for dinner. However, in this day and age, there has been a boom in products we can choose for dinner, with aisles stacked to the roof with choices.
To make it worse, marketing in the media has tapped into this and started promoting their products as a way to the dream life – see this Psychology Today article on the potential media influence on the burden of choice. This has not helped our FOMO (or Fear Of Missing Out), which is part of the reason why we don’t want to make the choice – we fear that we will regret it and maybe worse, watch other people who made the right choice enjoy their lives.
How To Avoid Paralysis
Go for the same, classic option. You don’t have to be adventurous to enjoy things. If you feel stressed about a small decision, don’t waste your time and effort on it. Move on – it’s OK if you don’t make the optimum choice. Be a satisficer, not an optimiser.
Practice more gratitude with what you have. If you are more content with your life, you place less value on something that is sold to ‘make your life better’.Have more lenient expectations: this is good advice for everything from relationships to career choices. I hesitate to say lower your expectations – it is important to have expectations and dreams – but don’t completely give them up, just allow room for others to grow and change.
Have more lenient expectations: this is good advice for everything from relationships to career choices. I hesitate to say lower your expectations – it is important to have expectations and dreams – but don’t completely give them up, just allow room for others to grow and change.
With a great life decision, give yourself time. You will probably have to make the choice at some point, so do some productive procrastination.
Research your options. Imagine yourself in that future position. Can you deal with the pressure? Are they the sort of challenges you feel you’ll enjoy? Will the relationships you make there be enriching?
How To Use The Paradox Of Choice To Your Advantage
This comes mostly when you’re trying to sell something. As FightMediocrity explains in his video, everyone is selling something every day, whether it’s yourself, your ideas, your product… If you’re persuading someone of something, you are selling.
There’s an element of exclusivity if you slim down the choices. There are many studies that have been done like the jam one mentioned in FightMediocrity’s video: I recall another study where researchers gave random participants a choice of 1 from either 30 different chocolates or 6 different chocolates. The participants who had 6 to choose from were reportedly happier.
This reduction of choice leads to a higher chance of you making the optimum choice, so you are less likely to question your happiness. There is a reduction of ‘anticipated regret’ (which is the fear that we will make the wrong choice) and ‘regret avoidance’ (which leads you to not make any choice at all), not to mention actual regret of not picking a different one.
However, as with all psychological studies, you need an element of skepticism. There have been many attempts at replication and the results are not the same, which begs the question of whether choice really has any negative effect at all.
See below for the video by FightMediocrity that started it all:
Have any of you been in the same situation where you’ve had so much choice that you are terrified of making the wrong one? Have you ever used the Paradox of Choice on anyone else? Let me know!