The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice Barry Schwartz, the behavioral psychologist coined the phrase, the paradox of choice in his book of the same name. His thesis is that having no choice makes us unhappy, having some choice makes us happy and having too much choice makes us jittery and downright unhappy.



We tend to be poor choosers. We have a hard time distinguishing our needs from our wants and even when we identify a true need, we are paralyzed by the surfeit of options available. Honestly, how many choices of salad dressing or blue jeans do we really need to maximize our happiness?

Schwartz makes the case that too many options inevitably make us less satisfied with our decision. We have heightened expectations that with so many options, surely we’ll make the perfect choice. When it turns out to be just fine, but not perfect, we feel like failures and are filled with self- blame. How could we not have picked the perfect jeans when there were hundreds of pairs to choose from? Next time we’ll get it right! So the “just fine” jeans hang in the closet with the tags still attached and the hunt for perfection plays out with another trip to the mall. Could we make ourselves content with mere excellence rather than absolute perfection? Of course, this is only a problem in the world of material affluence. How much time and energy do you waste trying to find perfection when good is good enough?

A couple of strategies (notice it’s only a couple) for dealing with the paralysis and unhappiness that endless choice bring: *Separating needs from wants. Our needs are few and simple. Our wants are explosive and often driven by clever marketers and our desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” Learn to satisfy your needs and curb your wants. * “Self-binding”. This strategy, developed by Jon Elster, a social theorist, goes like this. We can consciously try to choose less by pre-committing to limiting our choices. Simply thinking about this apparent contradiction of too much choice is a good starting place. Adopt the “good enough” mindset. Understand that complicated choices make us less happy, more exhausted and more regretful. Consciously limiting choices can be liberating, even exhilarating.

So before you prepare for the family beach trip, or begin back-to-school shopping, talk with your family about needs versus wants and vow to limit your choices. Your toddler will be content with last year’s sand toys even if they don’t include a castle turret mold. Your teen’s happiness on the beach will not depend on finding the perfect swimsuit. And your college-bound student’s life will still be complete even if the extra-long twin sheets are basic white!

For more inspiration, watch Schwartz’s TED talk.