Do We Have Too Many Choices?


Wouldn’t it be a great to have an infinite number of choices for each product you’d like to buy? For example, when you’re buying a car, wouldn’t it be nice if you could choose between twenty different ones that all fit your criteria?

The Problem

Ironically more and more research is beginning to show that giving people too many options causes them to be more stressed than if you give them just one or two. In fact, Barry Schwartz has written a whole book around this concept called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less:

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.
—quoted from Ch.5, "The Paradox of Choice", 2004

Consider the super-market. When I go to Dominick’s I get to choose from 10 different types of sugar. They’re all different brands, different sizes and different prices. To even determine which is the best value I have break out a calculator. I actually prefer Aldi’s where I have less choice because it just makes for much faster shopping trips!

The reason that I feel the need to compare every option is due to my personality. You see, dear reader, I’m a maximizer…

Two Types of People

According to Schwartz, the problem really boils down to the fact that there are two types of people in the world:

  • Maximizers: Maximizers are the people that need to consider every possible choice before making the final decision. At the supermarket, they are the ones breaking out the calculators and trying to translate a pound to an ounce. It’s getting harder and harder to be a maximizer as more and more options for a given product exist. The web is making this even worse because there are websites devoted to nothing but hundreds of different types of beach towels. It’s easy to provide infinite choices within a niche when you aren’t required to keep inventory. Or consider digital cameras. You could spend a lifetime considering all the options. In fact, there are sites that specialize in just that.
  • Satisficers:Satisficers aim for adequacy rather than trying to find perfection or the optimal solution. They are happy with something that is “good enough” and don’t feel the need to compare every option. As bad as this sounds (to a true maximizer like me), you will actually be happier and more efficient in your life if you are a satisficer rather than a maximizer.

These terms were originally coined by a researcher named Herbert Simon. He discovered was that humans lack the cognitive ability to compare every possible option and and outcome. We don’t have the true precision of mind that is necessary and our memories are flawed. According to Simon, we should take this into account when trying to make decisions and not try to come up with the “perfect” answer.

The Solution

So what is the solution if you are a born Maximizer and you just can’t accept second-best? Here are some techniques to make those of us maximizers a bit more like our satisficer brethren:

  • Consider the Cost: There is an opportunity cost to all of that time that maximizers spend comparing options. If you take two days to look at all the digital cameras out there and in the end save $5, have you really made good use of your time? When I think about the cost of my time that often helps me to make quicker decisions and reduce my tendency to try and compare all the options.
  • Timeboxing: Timeboxing is a technique that originated in the software development world, but has been picked up by the productivity folks as an effective way to control your time. With timeboxing, you set a specific amount of time that you will spend doing an activity. For example, if you wanted to buy a digital camera, you might give yourself 2 hours to research after which time you will make a decision regardless of whether you’ve looked at every possible option or not. This helps to curb perfectionism and make a maximizer more like a satisficer.
  • Voluntary Simplicity: Many of the choices that we struggle with in life are centered around buying new consumer products (e.g. – What digital camera, cell phone, car etc do I need to get next?). Voluntary simplicity is a lifestyle choice that checks out of that rat-race by de-emphasizing the accumulation of stuff and instead focusing on spirituality, health and quality time with family. There are lots of excellent books and blogs that can give you tips for living a simpler life.

At the end of the day, it’s much like the rule we’re often told about raising children. Kids will be happier if they are given boundaries rather than being able to choose whatever they want. Sounds like it’s the same with adults as well.

"Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."

-Henry Ford

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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