Management & Organization

Why you don’t want to choose

Why do students get less homework than earlier, why don’t you have the energy to find the cheapest phone company, and why are we less satisfied than previously? According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, the surprising answer is that we aren't able to handle the freedom of choice that we so eagerly strive for.

In an entertaining TEDtalk from 2005 Barry Schwartz addresses our dominant perception, that freedom of choice is automatically a good thing, as it leads to increased welfare. This means, that today, especially in western parts of the world, we live in a society that provides countless choices. But according to Schwartz we aren't able to handle all of these options of choice.

Too many choices make you unhappy

Think for example of how complicated it is to choose a phone company. Previously, there were one or a few providers (from whom you also rented your phone), while today there are countless providers of mobile subscriptions, who all offers a huge amount of different subscriptions.

As an educator, Barry Schwartz sees how that this supply of possible choices, affects his students. He says, that opposed to previously, he now gives his students 20% less homework. And it is not because they are dumber or less active. It is simply because their brains are occupied by making a great amount of choices, previous generations didn't have to worry about as much. For example, student now spend energy considering if they should get married or not, if it is time to start a family or not, if they should work now or later on. Decisions that previous generations generally took for granted.

Are you a maximizer or a satisfier?

When it comes to how we choose, Schwartz offers a continuum that describes to which degree you are a “maximizer” (wants to make the perfect choice) or a “satisfier” (is satisfied with the choice being "okay").

Objectively speaking, the maximizers tends to make better choices, but they are less satisfied with them, than the satisfiers are with their lesser choices, because they fret about all the other choices they could have made. Generally, the biggest maximizers were, in fact, less satisfied. Not merely with their choices but with their life in general. They were also less happy, less optimistic and more depressed than persons with a low maximizer-score. In fact, people from the top of the maximizer-scale were close to clinical depression.

Why choices make you unhappy

According to Schwarz, there are four reasons that freedom of choice makes people feel miserable:

  1. Regret and anticipated regret. We become less satisfied with our choices when there are more things to choose from, because it is easy to imagine that alternative solutions are better. This results in far more possibilities to regret. It is a feeling of the grass always being greener on the other side.

  2. Opportunity costs. When you choose one thing, you miss out on all the things you didn't choose. For example, the businessman who is on holiday in the mundane Hamptons, but spends his whole vacation regretting that he didn't get the good parking spot right by the office. You also experience opportunity costs when you don't throw out the expensive shoes, that fits terribly, because you still hope to get some value out of them. So your loss and your “regret” won't be too big.

  3. Escalation and expectations. When there's a lot to choose from you expect to acquire something better, than if there was no choice at all. Or as Schwartz says, “Everything was better, back when everything was worse”. High expectations are practically guaranteed to not measure up to the expectation. For example, if you carry high expectations that the party you are going to attend is going to be a tremendous feast, there is a larger probability that you'll become disappointed! Hence the key to happiness, according to Schwartz, is “low expectations”.

  4. Self-blame. If there's only one possible choice to make, you can blame the world around you if it ends up bad. But if there are many choices, and you decide on one, It's your fault alone if it is a bad one. This self-blame can lead to depression and in worst case suicide.

Barry Schwarz’s advice on how to navigate through a world of many choices can be found in the box below:

3 words of advices on making a better choice

Choose when to choose
We can decide on limiting our options when a decision is not crucial, for example, you can add a rule that says, that you are not allowed to visit more than two shops when you are shopping for clothes.

Learn to accept “okay”
Be satisfied with a choice that lives up to your most important expectations instead of searching for the unreachable “best option”. And then stop thinking about it.

Manage your expectations
“If you expect nothing, you won't be disappointed” is a cliché. But it's advice that makes sense, if you want to be more satisfied.

A later clarification

Since Schwartz published his book in 2004, there's been further research made on the “paradox of choice” and this has varied the picture greatly. Certain cases show that more choices help us make a decision, because we get to compare different solutions. For example, when Williams-Sonoma launched the baking machine. No one bought it before the manufacturer launched a more expensive model. The theory is, that the possibility of comparison with the more expensive model provided the customers with greater security in their choices. 

It seems that “paradox of choice” occurs under specific circumstances and that freedom of choice under others is a great advantage. As an example, an American scientist uses Starbucks, who advertises on having 87.000 different variation possibilities on their menu, and supermarkets with their glorious range of products as examples on places where a lot of possible choices makes sense – and profit.