More choice equals more freedom, so it leads to more happiness, right? Maybe not. According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, although having some choice is definitely a good thing, having a lot of choice may actually be causing us problems.
This isn’t a new idea. The 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed that the freedom and the huge amount of options we have in life, as well as the knowledge that we might make a wrong choice, means that many people either lose themselves in the finite or lose themselves in the infinite. To get lost in the finite is to limit yourself to being what society and other people expect you to be, rather than becoming a ‘true self’. Getting lost in the infinite means keeping possibilities open and not making any real choices at all – when faced with so many options, some people become almost paralysed, and find it hard to commit to anything.
Here in the 21st century there has been a huge increase in the amount of choice we have and the number of decisions we have to make. For example, in his 2005 TED talk, Schwartz describes how he has a choice of 285 different cookies and 175 salad dressings in his local supermarket, and psychologist Laurie Santos adds that there are now around 80,000 drink options in Starbucks. Schwartz also talks about the increase in options in the world of dating and relationships meaning we have to make decisions we never had to think about before. This increase in choice is having two major negative effects, he says.
The first problem we experience is decision paralysis. Similar to Kierkegaard’s lost in the infinite idea centuries earlier, this is the finding that when there are so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose anything. Schwartz gives an example of a study of employer contribution retirement plans which found that if there are fifty plans to choose from, fewer employees join than if there only five plans. With fifty plans, the employees put off making a decision because it’s so difficult to decide, meaning they lose out on free money, he says.
The second problem with having so many options is that when we finally make a decision, we tend to be less satisfied with what we got. Schwartz explains that when there’s a lot of choice and you buy something that’s not perfect (and most things aren’t, he says), it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. This can leave you feeling less happy with what you have, and you may even blame yourself for making a bad decision.
Constantly making decisions is tiring and can lead to another problem known as decision fatigue. On her Happiness Lab podcast, Santos explains that our brains don’t have the capacity to decide between so many choices, so we tend to filter some of the options out. In addition to that, as we make decision after decision, our brains become fatigued which makes us more likely to make worse decisions later on. If we use mental energy choosing coffee, it will reduce our ability to make good decisions about more important things later, she says.
To reduce choice overload, Santos recommends reducing the number of decisions you have to make each day, and says that she now eats the same breakfast every morning. Schwartz adds that when he goes to a restaurant these days, he doesn’t even look at the menu; he waits for his friends to order and then just chooses whichever of his friends’ orders sounds the best.
In a later interview, Schwartz does say that sometimes having a lot of choice can be a good thing and at other times it’s bad and can be paralysing, but it’s difficult to say which way that will go.