The Paradox of Choice

Published:  10/19/2023

Many years ago, I read a book called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. This book is eye opening. It discusses the downsides of choice (of options). We are taught that it is a blessing to have a cornucopia of options for everything from toothpaste to spouses. However, there are downsides to having options/choices. If our goal is to be happy, content, or satisfied, too much choice can be an obstacle to overcome.

The book provides many excellent examples of how choice can derail our rational mind, make us unhappy with our decisions, and induce stress. For example, when consumers were presented with dozens of varieties of jam, they found the process of choosing so stressful, they gave up and purchased nothing. However, when shown just three flavors of jam, they purchased far more jam.
Would you prefer to buy an expensive shirt from a store that allows returns or from one that doesn’t allow returns? It seems obvious that you should choose the store offering returns, but that might be a mistake. It turns out that you will likely rate the same shirt differently depending on whether you can return it or not. Having the option to return your purchase will leave room for second guessing the purchase. You might start to think why the shirt isn’t perfect. You may think it was too expensive and wonder if you should return it.

It isn’t a good idea to start thinking about how something is flawed if you want to feel good about having acquired it. When there is no option to return the item, you know you are stuck with it, so your psychological immune system kicks in to protect you from regretting the purchase. When you cannot return an item, you will start to look for ways to appreciate the item (e.g., the color of the shirt looks great on you) as opposed to reasons you might return it (e.g., it is too expensive to keep).  

Too much choice can lead us to behave in counterintuitive ways. For example, if I offered you $2 or a fancy pen worth $2 for completing a short survey, which would you choose? If you’re like most people, you’d choose the pen because $2 isn’t much money, and the pen is nice/useful. Studies show that approximately 80% of participants choose the pen when faced with this choice of rewards for completing a short survey. However, if the researchers include a third option for the reward, 2 pens worth $1 each, participants overwhelmingly choose the money ($2 cash) as their reward.
This doesn’t make sense at first glance. Afterall, if the $2 pen is a better reward than $2 in cash to most people, why should adding a third reward option that could easily be ignored change the appeal of the $2 cash prize? The reason is that people are risk adverse, so they subconsciously fear regretting choosing the wrong option among the choice of pens. This leads them to avoid choosing between the pens and just taking the $2 (a prize they would have been unlikely to choose if not for the additional option of two $1 pens).

How can we avoid the negative consequences of too much choice? We must become Satisficers and avoid being Maximizers. “Maximizers are people who want the very best. Satisficers are people who want good enough,” says Barry Schwartz. You may be thinking that you want the very best like Maximizers, but that is usually an unattainable standard. Even if you can get the very “best,” how long will it remain the best? Also, how will you know it is the very best? Only by devoting undo effort researching, searching, evaluating, and reevaluating. This will ruin your enjoyment of the thing in question. Acquiring anything will take forever using a Maximizer’s approach, and you will find the whole process stressful and exhausting. Once you do choose something, you will live in fear and doubt that you missed out on something better. This is no way to live.

Satisficers avoid this fate, by choosing the first item that is good enough for them. You might be thinking that Satisficers have low standards, but this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, Satisficers can have very high standards, but they are objective standards that can (at least theoretically) be met. This allows Satisficers to meet all their standards and to know they have acquired exactly what they wanted. They can therefore be entirely satisfied with their acquisition. They don’t need to worry about having missed out because if it was important to them, they would have included it in their criteria beforehand.

I try to be a Satisficer. For example, here is how I buy a used car. I will decide on a maximum price I am willing to pay. I want the car I buy to have a top safety rating (5 stars), and I want the car to be rated among the top five in reliability. I want the car to meet a minimum standard for fuel economy (for example, it must get at least 35 miles per gallon). I may want the car to be four-door and either blue, green, or grey. I also may want the car to have a backup camera. I will also specify the maximum number of miles I am willing to accept on the car. The car must come with a clean title record (e.g., no crashes or floods). Then I go out looking for cars. The very first car that checks all my boxes, I buy it. I never look at another car because what could it offer me. I already found everything that I wanted.

To establish your list of wants, it pays to do a little browsing up front. During this time, you are just learning what is available. This will help you set your standards ahead of time. Once you have gained an overview of the options, you can create your checklist of requirements. As soon as you find the item that checks all the boxes, stop looking and buy it. Be a Satisficer; avoid being a Maximizer.