Too Much Choice Can Make You Crazy

March 21, 2014
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Last time we looked at how the freedoms of our society are making the simple act of choice more difficult than ever. We’re all aware of the positives afforded to us by this relatively new freedom, but the negatives remain somewhat ambiguous and seem to be twofold.

Firstly, there are so many options available to us (whether choosing to purchase one product over another, making a life-altering decision, or deciding where to go on holiday) that we inevitably become overwhelmed by the possibilities and experience a kind of paralysis as a result of the increasing fear of making the wrong choice. This condition is apparent across the board and we’ve all experienced it, albeit in a situation as simple as taking a painfully long time to decide what to order from an extensive menu, as opposed to the quick and painless decision you make when there are only five items on offer.

Too Much Choice

The second effect strikes after the decision has been made and can often leave us with the lingering sensation that we have made the wrong choice. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice uses the example of buying a new pair of jeans to illustrate this phenomenon. Once, he claims, there was only one kind of ill-fitting jean design, which made shopping quite straightforward and easy, even if the result was not particularly attractive. However, with the clothing market now saturated with alternative cuts, colors and styles, not only is shopping for jeans more complicated and loaded with choices than ever, but our expectations regarding the result are infinitely higher. With so many possibilities, we are sure to find jeans that make us look fantastic, and if we choose ‘wrong’ and fail to do so, we will inevitably berate ourselves for doing so and be unhappy with the result.

We cannot escape the variety of choice on offer to us as consumers and members of a consumerist society, but just becoming aware of this choice paradox can ease the anxiety by allowing us to understand why we feel the way we do when faced with choice. Pulling back the curtain allows us to break from the dogma we have been instilled with and make choices that are best for us by understanding that more is actually less and that entering into the bigger/better game does not result in a happier outcome.

For more eye-opening thoughts on this topic, check out Barry Schwartz’s 2005 TED talk.

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