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Dave's Mostly Tinkering, Occasionally Reporting

The Paradox Of Choice

in Psychology · 2 minutes read

A Brief About Quora

Recently, I’ve been spending a bit of time scouring Quora.com, a Wikipedia-like Q&A website edited and organized by its community of users. It is a repository of user generated questions and answers to almost any topic imaginable. Amateurs (such as myself) and experts or celebrities (such as Jimmy Wales or Ashton Kutcher) contribute to codifying and spreading knowledge. A random selection of topics and example questions include:

It’s a fast and easy way to get introduced to a variety of new topics – a more efficient wiki surfing of sorts.

The Paradox Of Choice

I wanted to share on here an answer I recently wrote to the following question: What is the most awesome psychological fact(s) you know of?

The paradox of choice – which I believe is both the blessing and the bane of our generation (Gen Y). To put it simply, the paradox of choice states that the more choices one is given when making a decision, the less happy they tend to be about the decision they make (even if the selection is objectively better). This is driven by many factors, namely:

  • Additional effort and psychological stress associated with evaluating multiple options
  • Increased opportunity cost  a.k.a “the grass is greener on the side” syndrome (the way in which we value things depends on what we compare them to. It’s thus easier to imagine the attractive features of rejected options, the features we did NOT choose)
  • Greater “buyer’s remorse” (with so many alternatives, it’s easier to imagine how another choice would have been better)
  • Increased expectations from options (“with 87 options I have to find the perfect option for me”)
  • Finally, we are more likely to blame ourselves when our choices don’t meet our expectations (“I had all these options, it’s obviously my fault, I should have picked better” vs. “I was only presented with 2 options, not enough to make the right decision”)

Increasingly these days, youth (among other age groups) is presented with an overwhelming selection of options whether for small less significant decisions (e.g., 87 types of toothpastes) or for more significant decisions (e.g., university degrees, career paths). I believe the paradox of choice is one of the underlying reasons why so many of us (including myself) are increasingly indecisive and anxious about these so called “life decisions”. But that’s a different topic…

Whether or not we understand the paradox of choice and its impact, come decision time, we often intuitively remain convinced that more options must be better. Why would I want to limit my options to a small subset, when I can look at every option and then make the best decision? An objectively better option does not necessarily lead to improved satisfaction and contentment.

The mind is a funny thing.

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Published on:   June 19, 2013
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  • Allen

    I’ve been wanting to engage in this for a while now and what better time than a lunch break to start ranting here. I think the main cause of unhappiness that comes with the variety of choices is not the lack of satisfaction with the choice that you eventually make, it is the dragging of making the choice itself. Your brain will synthesize happiness no matter what choice you make, when I think back in all the major decisions that I’ve taken in my life I realize that I’m mostly unhappy when I’m stuck in between life stages and unable to take a decision regarding what to do next due to the variety/uncertainty of choices. Once a conscious and well studied decision has been taken you are free from the worry and rarely have any regrets. People quitting their jobs, getting or not getting a divorce, spending all their savings on travel or changing professions after years into their careers, most of them talk about how liberating taking the decision was and rarely regret anything, they were most unhappy right before taking the decision and this why I think its the dragging of the decision making process (amplified by the number of choices) is what makes us less happy.

    • Allen. Haha 🙂

      Yes, I agree with your point. I wasn’t arguing for happiness, rather against excessive options (choice). I especially love Dan Gilbert on this topic – the TED talk of whom you’ve certainly seen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4q1dgn_C0AU

      Both recent paraplegics and lottery winners return to a base and similar level of happiness after a few months. Yes, the mind is a funny thing.

  • Shawn E.

    I know it’s gimmicky but I’ve been looking to get a fuelband or fitbit (or jawbone) and it’s been a difficult process deciding which one I want. I completely identify with this post having lived it for the past couple days. I think I picked the best device for me, but I’m not very happy with my choice nonetheless, whereas if only one device existed, I would be ecstatic that this was available for me.

    Fitbit won.

    • It’s funny you bring this up, I actually went through the same process comparing Fitbit, FuelBand, Up, Amiigo, Basis B1, and ended buying… none! A perfect waste of time and energy 🙂

      PS: one feature I feel is missing in FitBit is the Jawbone’s Idle Alert.