129 // The Paradox of Choice


Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

We live in a society with too many choices. The number of options we have to choose from is crippling us. How do we, in such an environment, make positive decisions that we don’t continually regret and second guess?

Too Much Choice can leave you dissatisfied and disappointed. We are all under this assumption that the more choices we have, the happier we will be. Is that the case?

As Eva goes on, she references a TED Talk by Barry Schwartz, and there is an argument they are both making that when we have this much choice, we think that that is an expression of freedom; that we will find happiness from that, and yet what we are seeing is that the paradox of choice is we are actually less satisfied. We are left paralyzed, struggling to make decisions because there are so many options on even the simplest levels. What does the salad dressing section look like at your grocery store? How are you supposed to pick between all those variations and feel confident you didn’t miss the actual right choice? We stay in this place of perpetual second-guessing, amplified by our dissatisfaction. This is the paradox of choice. I have always thought that the more options we have, the better off we are, but there is more to it than that.

Barry Schwartz simplified this dilemma into 3 main problems. 

The first is fairly obvious: the more choice we have, the harder it is to choose. A study that looked at participation in 401k plans and found that when given more choices inside their 401k plan, employee participation rate went down.

We claim to want total freedom with an array of options, each with the potential to be exactly what we need, but we end up overwhelmed by decision fatigue because what if you get it wrong? Whose fault is it then? You’re swimming in a sea of options that are supposed to lead you to freedom, but you get trapped by the chaos trying to understand it all.

The second thing leads us to disappointment. When you do get some clarity, when you have finally overcome the overwhelm of different variations of the same flavor and make a choice, it is so easy to slip into disappointment. There were 20 other options you could have chosen. What if the better one is out there, and you just barely missed it? It’s paralyzing, and now our expectations have escalated because this starts to feel normal. And it’s not just the big decisions either, like what car you should buy. It’s in the mundane choices that get you through your day, too. Do you need 80,000 options for your morning coffee from Starbucks? No, but they’re there. 

Opportunity Cost Overload

When there are fewer choices, you don’t have a lot to compare with what you decide on. You feel confident in your ultimate choice being the right one because that list of opportunity costs, those things you passed up, is small. It doesn’t become this overwhelming pile of regret. Barry Schwartz says opportunity cost subtracts from satisfaction.

We are constantly disappointed with our options, but it’s worse now because there was so much to choose from before we made the wrong decision. The right one is out there, you just didn’t find it. You bought the wrong thing.

The last layer to this is the self-blame. A long time ago, if you were disappointed that the Model T didn’t come in any other color but black, you could blame Ford for that. Now, if you are disappointed with your choice, you can only blame yourself. It’s the constant disarray of every wrong choice we make in a day falling on our inability to make an informed decision. What kind of impact will that leave on our confidence in ourselves? Our belief that we know what’s best for our own lives?

If this is the problem at hand, how do we make it better for ourselves?

Is Disappointment Inevitable?

How do we make decisions in a way that doesn’t lead to dissatisfaction and disappointment? And how do we get to a place where, when we do feel disappointment, we don’t blame ourselves? Nothing external will make us happy. The only thing that makes us happy is our own thoughts and opinions about our lives. 

The first thought- limit your alternatives. Give yourself a smaller menu to choose from. If you eliminate options and narrow the lens you look through, you will find yourself feeling satisfied with the choice you made because you no longer carry the weight of the opportunity costs for everything you never chose. This confidence will help you make quicker, more efficient choices.

The other thing to remember is you would have been disappointed in the other choices too. The paradox of choice tells us that disappointment is not dependent on the particular choice you made. If your expectation for internal gratification is placed on external things, things will always fail at that. It doesn’t matter what you decide on, it will disappoint you in some capacity. Remind yourself that you are only human, and this is just what it’s like. 

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