The Paradox of Choice

Source: Inspired Living Medical

The Paradox of Choice

It is great that our wealth and prosperity, at least in the Western world, is much larger than ever before, isn’t it? We have an abundance of food, electronic devices, clothes, and things of all sorts. However, as paradoxical as that may sound, we often find ourselves stressed out by all the options and all the stuff we have. We tend to ignore this feeling because admitting to being irritated by having to choose between 10 different kinds of strawberry jam makes us look spoilt. That’s at least the reason why for many years I felt guilty about my uncomfortableness with overchoice. This changed when I listened to a TED-talk that opened my eyes to the burden of too much choice. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist studying the link between economics and psychology, talked (#Saywhatis!) about this phenomenon, called the paradox of choice.

In his TED talk, Schwartz starts with outlining the “official dogma” that maximising choice is good because it allegedly supports our individual freedom:

“The official dogma runs like this: if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is […] that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. […] The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have. This, I think, is so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to question it.”

Schwartz continues outlining why choice also has its downsides:

“We all know what’s good about [choice], so I’m going to talk about what’s bad about it. All of this choice has two […] negative effects on people. 

One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.

The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.”

He explains that there are at least three reasons we end up less satisfied with our choices:

First, it’s easy to “imagine you could have made a different choice that would have been better” and then find yourself in a situation where “regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision”. 

Second, expectations escalate significantly when the choice increases. When someone is presented with 100 pairs of jeans, all with different features, he or she inevitably gets the impression there must be the perfect one. Schwartz points out that pleasant surprises, which are crucial for a content life, are hardly possible when expectations are too high.

Third, in a world that values individual freedom so highly, the person who makes the choice feels responsible for the (disappointing) outcome, even when the result of the decision is good, resulting in feelings of guilt.

Schwartz concludes by linking the exploding number of people with clinical depression to the paradox of choice. The vast amount of choices leads us to be disappointed not only by the things we buy, but also by ourselves because we made the “wrong” choice. This disappointment leads us to believe that we are at fault. According to Schwartz, the constant feeling that we are not good enough and that we should have done better significantly contributes to the explosion of depression we face nowadays.

Here are three examples for how overchoice affects me in my daily life:

First, I feel like I am drowning in options. I am very bad at filtering and the very fact that every day I get newsletters of free online courses (all interesting), free eBooks (also all interesting), and 58 messages from friends makes me feel like I am always falling behind on things and I will never be able to read all the free good stuff that is floating around me and do all those things that are possible in this world today.

Second, not only am I drowning in options about what to do in my free time, but also what to do as voluntary work. Volunteering is booming. At first, voluntary work seems like a great chance to do what you love. However, we might fall into the trap of doing all those things to put them in our CV. Then it becomes exhausting easily. And even when we like what we do, it is difficult to realize where to stop. Nowadays, we can do so much remotely that we end up taking one task after the other without knowing when it’s enough. It also diminishes our sense of self-worth because when there are people who get paid for the tasks we do for free, we feel like we are worth less.

The third example is my recent flat-search in Berlin: I bookmarked 14 Facebook groups and 6 more webpages where I could find apartments. It’s great that nowadays you can choose flats for viewing while sitting in your living room, wearing your pyjama. However, the housing situation in Berlin is tough and people reply to a Facebook rental opportunity within a minute after posting. So I could spend 24/7 searching for apartments, not knowing if I have the tiniest chance to actually view any one of them. When do I stop? Should I set a limit to one hour a day? Actually, I couldn’t feel at ease with any limit. I hated to know that the moment I went offline I was losing thousands of options, and that my dream apartment might have been one of them. And then there was the feeling of guilt that made me feel I couldn’t have any free time until I found myself a place to live before I start working.

All of this makes me wish sometimes that we didn’t get so many things for free and didn’t have the internet. That we could do things the older, slower, but more relaxed way, where we didn’t feel like we were missing out on 10000 options in every single moment. Where we had to talk to people in person to arrange apartment viewings and where there was nothing to do after office hours but enjoying our free time.

I am curious to know how you feel about the overwhelming quantity of choices! Do you also feel burdened by all the things you could do? If so, how do you deal with the sense of overwhelm? Contact us, and let us know! 

Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 9th June 2022 

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