Monday, January 21, 2008

Too Many Choices

After the past many weeks filled with choices leading up to our household move, I have concluded that a person can deplete their ability (or at least their desire) to actually choose. "I have reached my capacity for making decisions," I told someone today.

It reminded me of 2001 when I returned to Calgary, a city of nearly 1 million people, from the small town of Rainbow Lake (pop. 1,200). I picked up the City recreation guide with glee, thinking "Now I can get Andrew into all sorts of great activities that weren't available in Rainbow." After wading through the options for over an hour, I finally closed the guide in frustration because the plethora of choices was so overwhelming, I couldn't decide.

Now with our household move, I have to choose colors for the walls, colors for the carpet, styles of light fixtures (how many different types are in your house?), what kind of shovel, how many features on the alarm system, does Andrew change schools?, when do I pack, when do I work, do I need new furniture, what kind of blinds, etc. You'd think with all this decision making I'd feel empowered. But I was more discontented.

I assume others have experienced this decision overload. So I Googled "too many choices" and found a great 20 minute lecture by Barry Schwartz from 2005 on TEDTalks called "The Paradox of Choice." What a relief. Finally, someone who understands. He said he had the same letdown after trying to buy a pair of jeans. After an hour of trying on 20 different varieties, he ended up with the best fitting jeans he'd ever owned, but he was still disappointed. He said he had to write a book about it to explain it to himself.

Here's some of the highlights:
We so many choices, is this good news or bad news? The answer is “Yes.”

The official dogma says that we need to maximize welfare, therefore we need to maximize freedom, which means we need to maximize choice because more choice means more freedom and more freedom means more welfare.

But this is not true. More choice has two significant negative effects.

1. It produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. Making certain decisions is so hard that some would rather pass up financial benefit than make a choice.

2. Even if we manage to overcome the paralysis, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. Why is this?

  • Regret and anticipated regret. It’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. This imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you have made and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you make, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option you chose.

  • Opportunity costs. How much we value things depends on what we compare them to. When there are lots of alternatives to consider, it is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives you reject that make you less satisfied with the choice you made.

  • Escalation of expectations. With all these options available, my expectation about how good (the product) should be went up. When everything was simple, it was possible to people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. The secret to happiness is low expectations.

  • Self Blame. Why am I disappointed with my choice? Who is responsible? Only me. With so many options, we perceive that there is no excuse for failure. A significant contributor to the explosion of depression is that expectations are so high, I should have been able to make a good decision.

In this peculiar problem of modern, western, affluent society, Barry Schwartz concludes that more choice does not mean more welfare. We need limits. This will actually increase our satisfaction.

You know, buying my carpet from a guy who gave me only two colour options is looking like a pretty good idea. I'm pleasantly surprised.

1 comment:

  1. Reading this post makes me remember our homebuilding process...that we are still trying wrap up. Fewer choices seems like a place I want to return to and actually find myself doing in other areas of my life. Didn't Grandpa write a song about choices...The Best Choice...or something like that? I hope things wrap up for you quickly and in a tight and tidy fashion! Love you!