Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard. ― Barry Schwartz
Each day we are faced with an astounding amount of choices, from dating partners, to shoes, breakfast cereals and health options, to social media, travel, work and study. The simple and supposedly wonderful freedom of choice we enjoy is robbing us of time, peace of mind and happiness.
In fact it’s causing many people’s self worth to plummet, leading them to make poor decisions as well as loading up their lives with more stress. Recent studies show that when people are faced with too many options, they will make snap decisions instead of wise choices. It seems too much choice is more restrictive than too little choice. The privilege of choice, apparent freedom and progress we’ve all been sold on is not quite what it was cracked up to be.
Too many questions
A simple mission like purchasing a coffee can turn into a game of 20 questions, before you’re rewarded with your drink. White or black, flat or foamy, strong or weak, decaf or caffeinated, and then, wait for it, there’s the milk: cows milk, soy, almond, rice or oat milk, skinny or full cream, sugar, sweetener or honey, chocolate sprinkle on top or not, have in or takeaway! I’m exhausted writing the words, never mind taking the quiz. This endless choice can be brain frying at best, or infuriating and hugely stressful at worst as you grit your teeth waiting for your coffee as the minutes tick closer to your train pulling out of the station. Nothing is simple anymore. We are asked to make decisions many times a day over insignificant things in our life.
US Psychologist Barry Schwartz penned the bestseller The Paradox of Choice – why more is less, over a decade ago. In this highly influential book, he explains at what point choice – the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish – becomes detrimental to our psychological wellbeing.
Schwartz shows how the dramatic explosion in choice from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family and individual needs, has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. He says that excessive choice can even lead to clinical depression.
There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives. It enables us to control our destinies and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation. On the other hand, the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better… There is a cost to having an overload of choice.
He says that as a culture we are enamoured by freedom, self-determination and variety, and are reluctant to give up any of our options. “Clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress and dissatisfaction – even to clinical depression.” Ten years on and his book is even more relevant than it was back then, particularly with the explosion of social media and online dating.
Too many products
In the US according to Schwartz, Americans spend more time shopping than any other country worldwide. There are far more shopping centres now than there are high schools. On average Americans go to the shopping centre once a week, and what is puzzling is that apparently people are shopping more but enjoying it less.
It seems a simple matter of logic that if people have more options in a choice domain (cereals in the grocery, shirts in the department store, mutual funds in the financial market, health insurance plans) … they’re better off. People who don’t care about added options can ignore them, and people who do care may be able to find the perfect thing. Adding options is what economists call a “Pareto improvement,” making some people better off while making nobody worse off.
But studies are showing something different. There is strong evidence that reducing options for customers increases sales.
Last year Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis decided to trim down the products available on the popular supermarket’s shelves, removing 30,000 products from the 90,000 available. This seemed to be in response to shops like Aldi that offer less choice and have roaring sales.
Schwartz cites studies where researchers set up two jam sampling displays at a store. One display had six jams and the other had 24 jams. A third of people who saw the smaller selection, bought jam but only 3% of people exposed to the larger selection bought jam.
One interesting study into choice from Stanford University discovered that when participants were offered a movie ticket, half chose to go. When they were offered a ticket to a sporting event, 60% would attend. But, when offered both at the same time, less than 50% would attend either activity. Which of course brings me to Fear Of Missing Out.
It seems people are not making plans because “something better might turn up” and consequently people aren’t doing anything. Fear of missing out is becoming a real problem. People can’t decide where to go on holiday because the options are so overwhelming, so they won’t make a decision and will stay at home. Social media and dating sites exacerbate the phenomenon. And psychologically the presence of too much choice is leaving us feeling not good enough and perpetually worried about missing out.
Barry Schwartz says social media has led us to evaluate ourselves by comparing ourselves to other people. “If you compare yourself to other people in life, you get to see their good moments and bad moments. But if you’re comparing yourself to other people on Facebook, well everyone is a superstar on Facebook. The result is you feel your life is duller and shabbier…You seem less and less special, less and less competent, because everyone else is living this perfect life.”
We live in a society that is utterly overloaded with information. We need to get a grip and realize that being glued to our Facebook feed for 7 hours a day will not actually enrich our lives or help us achieve those big dreams.
An abundance of options can be paralysing
Perhaps overchoice is even having a deleterious effect on our relationships and could well be a cause for the high rates of divorce. We have too much choice available to us. We are told that if our partner doesn’t fulfil all our needs, then someone else out there will. It may be a tad unrealistic and in fact set up our relationships to fail by having such high expectations of people as well as the promise of replacements waiting in the wings.
Not only is the crazy array of choice a fact of daily life in the consumerist societies we now live in, but it has also crept into the spiritual marketplace, with an abundance of courses, workshops, books, supplements, health products and healing modalities all promising transformation and healing. The simple practices of yoga and meditation are awash with a variety that leads us away from their essence. Too much choice is frying our nervous systems.
An abundance of options can be paralysing. Anything that makes us lose touch with ourselves, with our innate value, our intuition and our solidity in our self-acceptance, is highly damaging to our psyche and esteem. Perhaps eliminating choices can greatly reduce stress, anxiety and the busyness of our lives.
How to avoid the tyranny of choice
Work out what your values are and start living by them. This will give you an inbuilt compass that will help you to always navigate the due north of what you stand for and value in life.
Living a simple, healthy life is a great way to quickly reduce the daily choices you make. By committing to eating fresh whole foods, that are free of preservatives, colourings, and additives you instantly knock out about 70% of the products in your local grocery store. This definitely makes shopping a whole lot easier.
If you commit to reduce your footprint by buying both local, seasonal and without packaging, such as purchasing produce from your local farmers market, or buying in bulk, you once again reduce your choices.
For many people, going vegetarian cuts out an entire range of choice and makes life a lot simpler.
Unplugging from mainstream life also supports decision-making. Such as not watching the news on television, and only watching a few select programs.
Living close to nature and doing nature based activities is not only a way of regenerating and healing our overstimulated nervous systems, but also being in the natural world teaches us what is of real value in life.
By avoiding shopping centres, catalogues and advertising: we can stop buying into the endless unquenchable materialist desires for more: the external trappings that will never fix the internal wounding.
Meditate and spend time connecting to and getting intimate with your self and something higher than yourself.
Making wise choices and finding the middle ground will enable you to benefit from variety and not be paralyzed by it.