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The problem with choice

For many of us living in the west, ‘choice’ is synonymous with freedom. Our ability, within our consumer society, to choose from myriad goods, services, or ways to spend our time, is seen as symbolic of our freedom and autonomy.

There’s little argument that choice is a good thing. Few of us would opt for the old Soviet system which produced a very limited range of goods. Choice allows us to meet our individual needs and preferences in ways that would have been undreamt of by our grandparents. Without choice we can’t have autonomy and without some autonomy and personal control we can’t have a sense of well-being.

Yet, despite being much better off than our grandparents, and having an infinitely wider range of choice in every aspect of life, we are no happier.

In his  book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less  the American psychologist Professor Barry Schwartz argues that we now have so much choice that it can paralyse us. Whether we’re buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier or applying to college, everyday decisions, both big and small, have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.

He argues that ‘choice overload’ makes us question our decisions before we even make them. It also sets us up for unrealistically high expectations and often leads to us blaming ourselves for what we perceive to have been the wrong choice. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety and perpetual stress. And in a culture that tells us there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression, he says.

In short, the more options we have, the more we struggle to make our minds up
and the less happy we feel once we have actually made a decision.

In a bid to quantify the bewildering range of choices we face every day, Schwartz went to his local supermarket (not a particularly large one) and started calculating his choices. He found that he could choose from:

85 varieties and brands of cracker, some with sodium, some without; some fat-free, others with fat; normal size and bite-size.
285 different sorts of biscuits (or cookies, as they say in the USA).
13 ‘sports’ drinks, 65 ‘box drinks’ aimed at children, 85 other flavours, 75 iced teas and adult drinks
95 types of snacks like crisps, tacos  or Pringles
61 varieties of sun oil and sun block
150 lipsticks
360 types of shampoo, gel and mousse
275 types of cereal
230 soups, including 29 different chicken soups

And so his range of choice continued to expand, from 55 different salad options to a range of different dental flosses. It was the same when he looked at electrical gadgets. He calculated that the confusing array of stereo tuners, CD players, tape players and speakers added up to the opportunity to create more than 6.5 million different stereo systems by mixing and matching the various elements. 
Schwartz argues that instead of liberating us, having to select from myriad choices paralyses us, rendering us incapable of deciding which holiday, pension plan, type of jeans, or jam comes nearest to meeting our needs. And even when we do make a choice, we tend to be less satisfied, fearing that there was an even better stereo or car out there which we failed to choose. In the 1950s and 1960s when choice was limited, we could blame manufacturers, retailers or even the government if we bought a TV, chunk of cheese, or pension which didn’ really meet our needs. But faced with infinite choices we blame ourselves when the purchase doesn’t fully satisfy us. Self-blame leads to a reduction in our sense of well-being and happiness.

When we’re offered too many options, we expect perfection, Schwartz told the Centre for Confidence and Well-being’s Vanguard Programme in 2005.

'If we have high expectations we expect perfection. We then ask ourselves, whose fault is it that I made a poor choice? If you only have two or three choices, it’s the world’s fault. But when we have hundreds of choices we blame ourselves.'

Self-blame rebounds on the individual undermining their confidence, well-being and happiness. In proposing a way out of this vicious circle, Schwartz divides consumers into two groups ‘maximisers’ and ‘satisficers’. Maximisers always seek the very best and will spend many hours researching how to find the’perfect’ job, car, house or holiday.  The satisficers will accept that this pair of jeans is good enough and that searching for the ideal pair is a waste of time.

He suggests that we aim for ‘good enough’ rather than vainly seeking perfection. Research shows that their drive for perfection tends to mean that maximisers earn more than satisficers,  but satisficers are generally happier than maximisers.

We should learn that ‘good enough’ is almost always good enough. We should focus less on what is bad in our lives and more on what is good. Sometimes we should choose not to choose. Having a close network of family and friends is what determines well-being, not having the best of everything, he told the Vanguard Programme.

You can listen to some of Professor Barry Schwartz’s lecture on choice in the audio section for well-being. You can also read some tips for dealing with choice in the tools, tips and techniques section.

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