The paradox of choice: On how more choice can make us do better, but feel worse. Why is this the case and how can we deal with it?

We have all been there. You sit down in a restaurant and the waiter gives you a menu card with around 50 main dishes to choose from. When the waiter comes back, you rush to make your decision. Finally, you are released from this piece of paper that has been torturing you for the past 10 minutes. But it’s not over yet. The choice you just made keeps haunting you. When the food arrives and you look around the table, you realize that you made a mistake. You should have gone for what one of your friends got, because that looks even better than what’s on your plate. Yes, we are talking first world problems, but the struggle is real.

When you go to a supermarket, it’s nice to have some choice. Having two types of yogurt to choose from is better than one and having three options is usually better than two. Companies assume that by giving customers more choices, they will be more likely to buy something, because they can find exactly what they are looking for.

Reality is that we often don’t know exactly what we are looking for. Researchers did an experiment selling different types of jam at a local food market. On one day, they displayed 24 different jams and on another day people were given ‘only’ 6 options. What happened? The stand with 24 types of jam attracted more people, but those people were far less likely (about 10 times!) to buy a jar of jam than on the day with 6 jams.

This is called the paradox of choice. If we are offered too many choices, it becomes less likely that we take a decision. Researchers use the term paralysis by analysis, which means that we over-think or over-analyse and therefore never take action.

Depending on the situation, not taking a decision can cause some trouble. But it is not the only problem that arises from the overload of options. Because when we finally do decide, we are often less satisfied if we had more choice. Our expectations rise by having more alternatives. With close to limitless choices, we expect perfection. We can see the results in a speed dating study. A real-life experiment showed that more ‘matches’ were made when people got 6 choices (speed dates) than if they got 12.

More choices lead to higher expectations. And higher expectations lead to …? Usually regret and blame. Because who do we blame when expectations aren’t met? We blame ourselves, because we made the choice. That is why having more options can make us do better but feel worse.

Clearly, we are privileged to live in today’s world. We have more opportunities and options than any of our ancestors have ever had. We shouldn’t complain about this, but it is important to realize that there is also a flip-side to it. Having more choices is not always better as it sometimes harms us more than it helps us. Understanding this can help us to manage our expectations and thereby increase our happiness.

Do your best to not be a ‘maximizer’ who obsesses every choice to get the best possible outcome. Being a maximizer makes it hard to enjoy life, because reality is that you’ll never know if you made the best choice. This is easier said than done and I often still catch myself overthinking decisions. But try it and don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes, good is good enough.