Too many choices

The nature of desire is not to be satisfied.
Aristotle
384 – 322 B.C.

Today, we’re faced with an increasing number of choices for every imaginable item in our lives. It’s truly amazing the number of options we have. Just think about the last time you went to the grocery; pick any item — bottled water, soda, detergent, paper towels — and the number of choices is absolutely astounding.

You’d think that having lots of choices would be a good thing. But it’s not.

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz wrote about a research experiment that was conducted at an upscale gourmet food store. On one weekend, there was a display of six jams available for tasting. On a different weekend, there were twenty-four jams available for tasting. Customers were given a coupon for one dollar off if they purchased any jam, and all twenty-four varieties were available for purchase each weekend.

The study produced some interesting results. The larger display of jams attracted many more potential customers, and in both cases, the average number of jams people tasted was the same. But only 3% purchased when all twenty-four varieties were available for tasting, compared to 30% who purchased when only six varieties could be tried.

When we’re exposed to more choices, we feel compelled to figure out the best one — so more options means more work to do. As the number of choices increases, it soon overwhelms us and we resort to the safest choice: we do nothing.

Now, being overwhelmed by a variety of jams and failing to purchase any won’t drastically impact our lives. But there are situations where failing to act hurts us. For instance, if you have a retirement plan where you work, you’ve probably been given a huge menu of options. Studies have shown that, given too many possibilities, people tend to make poor decisions about how to invest their retirement funds, sometimes leaving them in money markets or other poor yield investments to avoid choosing between more appropriate options.

Choosing people for friends or relationship partners is another area where too many options often results in withdrawal. At one time, the majority of people married someone living in or near their hometown. Now the potential pool of friends and relationship partners has expanded greatly, which would lead you to believe that we would 1) have more friends and 2) do a better job of picking relationship partners. But that’s simply not the case. We now have fewer close friends than ever before, and the marriage rate is dropping while the divorce rate climbs.

So what’s the answer? We’ve seen that the more choices you have, the more difficult it becomes to make an intelligent decision. So the short answer is to focus on fewer potential options. The second thing you can do is stop trying to maximize the possibilities and decide what criteria are good enough.

When we make a decision about something, like a cell phone plan or the purchase of a new car, we often question whether we made the best choice. Once we start to question our decision, the related satisfaction drops. We’ve grown accustomed to the right to change our minds, to return goods after we’ve purchased them. This attitude carries over to other parts of our lives, leading us to question our decisions — and sometimes, to try to reverse them. In small retail matters, this tendency isn’t so bad, but with life partners, it’s a major problem.

So the best advice seems to be to limit the potential choices, decide what you consider acceptable and don’t second guess your decision; make a good choice and stick with it. Having too many options hampers our ability to choose wisely and reduces satisfaction with our eventual choice.

Think things through and fully commit!
Epictetus
55 -135 A.D.

Copyright © 2014 John Chancellor

Comments

Too many choices — 1 Comment

  1. Please don’t let my husband see this post. He often chastises me for having to see an entire product line before being able to make a decision. I agree, at least in theory, that that’s not always the best approach, particularly when time is of the essence. For some things, it’s better to find a product that satisfies your needs, even if it may not be the very best product.