The paradox of choice


The paradox of choice

With so many options to choose from, it’s easy to get paralysed with indecision.

Yesterday I stumbled upon the TED talk ‘The paradox of choice‘ by Barry Schwartz, based on his book of the same title. The talk was given some years ago, but I hadn’t come across it before. In his lecture Schwartz explains how, paradoxically, having more choice isn’t better for us. In fact, it can cause us to make worse decisions, and feel unhappier about them afterwards.

More choice makes us worse off

In a world with few choices, we tend to accept whatever we get, and if it isn’t perfect we just blame the world. We made the best decision we could from the few available options. Do you want apricot or strawberry jam on your toast? Well, if that’s all the choice you have, you might pick strawberry and be content, even though what you really would have liked is raspberry-kiwi. In a world with many choices on the other hand, two things change.

One: we often get paralyzed by the decision in front of us, and end up not choosing at all. I often feel like this in a clothing store, when I see many items of the type that I need but none of them is perfect, and I decide to “keep looking”. If there are three styles of sunglasses to choose from, I’ll just take the one I like best. If there are 100 styles, unless I see one that immediately looks perfect to me, I will not buy any, thinking that there might be a better one in the next store. Meanwhile I’m wasting time and energy, while being blinded by the sun.

Two: we feel unhappier afterwards, because we have the idea that we could have done better. Faced with few choices, we have an easy time picking the best one for us, and we know that we’ve done well. With many choices the available options are probably much closer to each other, and we end up forever regretting not picking that other option that may or may not have been superior in a certain respect. What’s more, it is our fault for not making the best choice, rather than the universe’s fault for not giving us more options to choose from. (When you consider these two points, you’ll understand why online dating is so much worse than meeting someone in real life.)

Choice and the two-bags-and-a-suitcase-lifetyle

I was intrigued by the ‘paradox of choice’, because my lifestyle is all about maximizing freedom (which is, simply put, having many options available to choose from). I can run my internet business from any place that has an internet connection, and work at any time of the day. Because I own almost no stuff, I can relocate at the drop of a hat. And because I have few real deadlines, I can spend time on leisure whenever I choose.

People with little choice

Most people create for themselves a life with little choice.

For most people this is not the case. They work nine-to-five jobs and can’t really choose to do anything other than go to work on any given weekday. They will have a few weeks of vacation a year, which they’ll typically spend in a traditional tourist destination that doesn’t require too much planning and research (for which they don’t have the time). They are tied to their home town because of their mortgage and their job, and can’t easily decide to move somewhere else. In other words, life limits their choices (and in doing so makes them happier?).

It’s not by accident that my lifestyle is different. I’ve made a conscious effort, and had to go against convention and social pressure, to develop my free and independent life. I’ve had to make some sacrifices, like being far away from many of my friends, having an uncertain future, and sometimes having to survive on fewer resources than my peers. Yet I think these sacrifices are worth making for the benefits of my life: the many countries I’ve been able to travel to, the people I’ve met all over the world, the wonderful cultural experiences I’ve had, and the freedom to pursue whatever I believe will make me happy at the time.

But along comes science, telling me that all this freedom is actually not the path to happiness. On the contrary: having fewer choices would make me much happier. If I can choose to spend a week in Paris or in Rome, I’ll probably be happy with my trip regardless of which I end up choosing. If I can travel to literally anywhere in the world for any amount of time, I might feel much worse about whatever I pick, even if it’s much more interesting or fun than Paris or Rome.

How to deal with choices

Have I taken up the wrong lifestyle? Should you not follow my advice in this blog, and just live an ordinary life instead? I don’t think so. But living a life full of freedom and possibilities requires some strategies to deal with the paradox of choice. I think that the following four strategies help a lot to avoid paralysis and unhappiness in the face of lots of choice.

Reduce choice early. I find that it helps me a lot to quickly reduce my options for a given decision I need to make. Sometimes I travel to a city and can get overwhelmed by the number of potential accommodations available. I end up spending hours comparing them on comfort, location, price, and other factors. This is a waste of time, because the difference in experience I get isn’t worth the hours of research. So the best way to go is to quickly restrict myself to a smaller geographic area or price range, and then just pick the best available option within that range. I rarely regret the option I pick.

Lock in your choices by making a commitment. Nothing fuels indecision and regret like keeping your options open. If you book a refundable plane ticket, you’ll keep wondering whether you should change your mind or not until you’re in line for the check-in. If you book a non-refundable you just have to live with the decision you’ve made, and you’ll usually be quite happy about it. (Also see the TED talk ‘The surprising science of happiness‘ by Dan Gilbert on this subject.)

Focus more on the overall experience than on the highlights. I find that for most choices I make, they don’t really matter. Should I move to Medellin, Colombia, or to Stockholm, Sweden? While the two cities are very different in pretty much every possible way, either choice would result in interesting experiences, meeting people from a different culture, and tasting new kinds of food. It doesn’t matter much whether Gravlax is better than Butifarra SoledeƱas, or whether Medellin has a better night life than Stockholm. The key is choosing one place, committing to it, and opening yourself to having a great time there. (And if it doesn’t work out, you can always move somewhere else next.)

Avoid creating choices that add little value. If you’re a minimalist like me, you’re already doing this to some extent. Some people spend half an hour in the morning to figure out which of their 50 combinations of clothes to wear today. They are wasting their time, because whatever they choose, it doesn’t really matter. If you only have three sets of clothes, the choice is quickly made.

Creating and reducing choice

The beauty of a mobile, minimalist lifestyle is that you create lots of possibilities for yourself. You have a potential for wonderful experiences that most people rarely get. The risk, as we’ve seen, is that since your options are literally limitless, you end up in paralysis and ultimately unhappy with the choices that you make.

The key to dealing with the paradox of choice is to open up valuable possibilities, and then quickly reduce your decision spectrum again by only keeping the most desirable options to choose from. Don’t worry about making the best choice; just try to make a choice that seems interesting. You’ll end up living a high quality life, and you can be content about the choices you make.

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