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The Paradox of Choice – how too many decisions are paralysing us

summer-dessert-sweet-ice-cream.jpg“Wow!”  I said walking into one of the many, many ice cream parlours opening up across the City.  “Look at all these flavours, I can’t wait to try them!”

I love ice-cream.  I also love trying new things, so when the first ice cream parlour opened in my City I couldn’t wait to try it out.  I walked in to the shop, specifically designed to excite (insult) all the senses with the bright lights, multiple smells, wide range of very bright colours…you get the picture.  I looked at the huge variety of ice cream on offer, along with the different cones and the multiple toppings.  “All my favourites!  Fererro Rocher, Bounty, Mars Bar, Crunchie”…you name any confectionary and it was there as an option of ice-cream flavour.

This is where I started to falter.  There were 3 sides to the counter, all with so, so many flavours.  “Ooh I definitely want that one, no wait that one!  Oh, maybe I’ll get two flavours that’ll make it easier”…It didn’t.  So what they do when you are struggling to pick a flavour is to let you try them, that definitely makes it easier.  Turns out it doesn’t.  There were just too many flavours.  I tried a few and my FOMO (fear of missing out) kicked in, what if there was a better choice and I missed it??  After all I couldn’t have them all (could I??).  So what did I do?  I ended up walking out with nothing but a few tasted samples.

So obviously this is a frivolous example, but the struggle is real.  There is a term to describe it, ‘The Paradox of Choice’.  Barry Schwartz, an American Psychologist, wrote a book in 2004 explaining this phrase and the very real anxiety that shoppers feel when they are faced with too many choices, and that even though we now have more choices available to us than ever before we are actually suffering more with stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and a distinct lack of happiness.  Remember the days where there were only vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavoured ice cream on offer?  You would pick one and be completely satisfied with your choice, you wouldn’t feel as though you were missing out on a better option.

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Everywhere you go now there is so much choice, and with choices comes decisions that have to be made.  They may not feel like they are decisions at all, sometimes they are seemingly simple, but think about when you go to the supermarket and there are 10 different varieties of cornflakes to choose from.  Surely there can’t be that much difference in them, but you still have to decide which one to actually purchase.  How do you choose, and how do you know that the choice is the ‘correct’ one?  When you choose to decorate your house, how do you choose between the hundreds of variations of basically the same colour of paint?  How do you choose which car to buy when there are so many makes, and even if you know which make you want, how do you know which model to pick?  How do you choose which course to study at university, or which TV programme to binge on next, or even which subscription TV you should sign up to (well Netflix has this show, but Now TV has this show and Amazon has this other show…)??  Every decision made ends up costing you money, when not so long ago you would be happy (and richer!) with the much more limited choices available.  Remember when you were happy with the 5 ‘free’ TV channels you had available?

All of these decisions that need to be made take time, research needs to be done, reviews need to be read, comparisons need to be made, and all this time spent making decisions takes time away from doing what is actually important to us.  Along with the stress and anxiety all these decisions cause, it can also contribute to depression and loneliness, these decisions are mostly individual, you can take advice from others, but really only you are making the decision (and what if it’s the wrong one??).  You end up regretful, blaming yourself for bad choices, and thinking about the opportunities you missed out on.

There are two main types of consumers according to Herbert Simon, maximisers who want to make the best decision they can by considering all alternatives possible, and the satisficers, who still care about standards, but are not worried that there might be another, better, option.

I mean, why settle for less when there is so much choice that I could have the best?  Why do I always pick the wrong things when Joe Bloggs always picks the best?  Why would I agree to that social event when I might get a better option?  Why would I choose to go on a date with that Tinder match when someone better might come along?  How do I choose what I want to do when I graduatepexels-photo-267885.jpeg, literally the whole world is open to me?

Too many choices are paralysing.  We end up deferring the decision because it is far too overwhelming and we just can’t deal with it, instead choosing to bury our heads in the sand, which is rarely ever the best choice to make.

Choices and decisions are everywhere, even in things that should be relatively simple.  Facebook tells me that today is school choosing day for many parents.  School has now become a consumer good, making the right choice for your child is fundamental to the rest of your child’s life, I mean if you make the wrong choice then it could have huge, life altering ramifications for your child and they might end up a drug addict or in prison.  Right?  Parents choose where to live (and move house!) depending on the current ‘best’ school (regardless of how variable and changeable this actually is).  Parents are lying about their address, or paying for private education as it is now a decision that has to be made (and a hugely costly one at that).  It used to be that you went to pretty much the only primary and secondary school available to you, along with everyone else.  The rest was up to you.  Now it is just another decision in the long line of decisions that have to be made, contributing to the huge amount of stress already experienced by long suffering parents.

Although this is unlikely to change soon there is some headway being made into providing less choice for consumers.  In 2015 Tesco reduced their choices by a third in response to competition from budget supermarkets (like Lidl) who offer much less variety.  But no company is going to reduce the amount they offer unless there is a good business reason to do so (even Tescos groundbreaking strategy was more concerned with their shareholders returns as much as their consumers wellbeing), so it is up to you to come up with ways of dealing with the overwhelming amount of choice available.

I am a classic maximiser, I absolutely have to make what I see is the right choice when I spend my hard earned cash, so I will do as much research as I can before I make a big decision.  As I become more aware of this paradox I have made conscious decisions to overcome it, by making choices based on my own previous knowledge and experiences.  When it comes to ice cream I have made the decision to always choose mint choc chip, I know I love it and it is available pretty much anywhere, and I can actually enjoy it in the moment without feeling like I’m missing out on a better choice.  It’s like brand loyalty, the same as when you find a brand you know and trust and stick with it, greatly reducing your further choices.  Of course this might not apply to you, you might be a satisficer who is happy to make a different decision every time without feeling the anxious effects of FOMO.

By decluttering through the KonMari method you become better at making decisions based on what sparks joy.  By completely decluttering your home and choosing what to keep (not what to discard) you are making choices based on what you like.  You will learn how to trust your instincts without relying on others (via reviews and recommendations). You will carry this forward to all decisions you make in life and decisions will become easier to make, you will become less stressed as a result,  You will feel the need to shop less often and you will shop smarter, and as a result you will be better off financially and feel much more confident when making decisions, freeing up time to do the things that you want to do, equalling greater satisfaction and happiness.  And who doesn’t want that?

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