The Paradox of Choices

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What is a paradox?

According to Wikipedia:

“A paradox is a logically self-contradictory statement or a statement that runs contrary to one’s expectation.”

In simpler words, a paradox is a statement or situation, despite having valid reasoning, leads to a denial or a logically unacceptable conclusion. Paradox situations are often unanticipated or ironic. For example, “Standing is more tiring than walking”. You can easily walk for 1 hour but it’s challenging to remain standing at one spot for 1 hour. Logically or scientifically, standing needs no work to be done compared to walking. You can try this to find out which is more challenging.

What is the paradox of choice?

Originally coined by the author Barry Schwartz, the paradox of choice is the situation where an abundance of options requires more struggle to choose and can leave us feeling unsatisfied with our decision.

The world is growing fastly. We are not bounded by just a handful of choices in any aspect. Be it about what to eat, what to wear, what to play, where to work, what to buy, etc. This list is never-ending. The paradox of choice has become a common problem in the world where options/substitutes are easily available for almost anything. We strive to get the best and make the perfect decisions in our life by choosing the best among the available options. But this is a paradox hence ironic that more choices lead to more effort to find out what is best.

Some examples of the paradox of choice:

Coffee Shops: Ever been to Starbucks Cafe? Starbucks claimed they offer more than 80,000 (yes, eighty thousand) drink combinations. It means that if you had started drinking coffee from the day you were born and going to try a new coffee every single day, it takes more than 200 years. Now, this is a challenging task to figure out which coffee to buy. The 80,000 combinations are surely not going to make you happy but will overwhelm you with the choices it offers. And you end up getting a latte or cappuccino, the one you make at your home.

Photo by kevser on Unsplash

Clothing Stores: We all have a strong urge to get the best outfit for ourselves, but the options are endless. Finding a good dress isn’t as easy as it seems. Whether you’re scrolling Myntra or finding something in H&M or Zara, the number of choices they can offer confuses you. There are plenty of options for different occasions like work, party, wedding, dates, outing, travelling etc. And within these categories, there is n number of subcategories. This creates a paradox of choice where we’re unable to decide what to buy because the available options are so many.

Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash

These are just a couple of examples, but the paradox of choice can be seen at other places like where to go for vacation, what music to play during a workout, what ice cream to eat, which book to read, etc. In a nutshell, where there are choices, there is a paradox of choice.

Why more is less or less is more?

You might be thinking what more is what less or vice versa. There should be some words between it. Let me make it clear. More choices are less satisfying, and fewer choices are more pleasing.

From the above examples, you might have got an idea that when we have an exceedingly large number of choices, we tend to get confused and not able to make a rational decision. Even if we decide, we tend to be unsatisfied with them because we have huge expectations from the number of choices.

Considering the Starbucks example, if Starbucks were offering just eight types of coffee, it would be easier for us to pick one from the given eight choices. As the number of choices increases, the variable in the decision-making equation also increases. Hence, making it harder for us to decide what to choose. Many restaurants and cafes identified this problem. To resolve this, they started offering two menus. Along with the long list of options to eat, they provide a short menu having “today’s special”, “bestsellers”, “top picks”, etc. This help the customers to pick from an already refined list of items and assist the decision making.

Effects of the paradox of choice

There is a consequential effect of the paradox of choices as it affects the decision-making capabilities and satisfaction. When we have many options in front of us, the expectations of being satisfied also increases.

Consider an example where you went to an ice-cream shop. The ice-cream shop offers hundreds of varieties of ice creams. Different flavours, different ingredients, different prices, with nuts, without nuts, in a cone, in a cup, as a roll, like a shake, different quantities of sugar, type of milk used, etc. Despite being happy with the choices, you seem to be “paralysed” from the options. You are unable to choose which ice cream to choose. This isn’t only blocking your decision making but is also time-consuming. You have already spent thirty minutes figuring out the “best” among the given options. You have gotten “analysis paralysis”.

According to Wikipedia:

Analysis paralysis (or paralysis by analysis) describes an individual or group process when overanalyzing or overthinking a situation can cause forward motion or decision-making to become “paralyzed”, meaning that no solution or course of action is decided upon within a natural time frame.

In this situation, a person often delays the decision or avoids it. They desired the perfect from the available options. It also causes a fear that a better decision could be on the next step. They end up making a decision based on quick judgement or gut feeling.

Having more options undoubtedly helps us make a rational decision based on priorities and likeliness but, as the number of choices increases, happiness and satisfaction start to degrade. See the graph below.

Another crucial impact of the paradox of choice is the missed opportunities. Due to the presence of multiple options and in search of the best, we tend to miss opportunities.

To explain this, let’s take an example of books. If you ask an author about his favourite books or just search books on Amazon, you will get thousands of bestseller books. If you strive to search for the best book to read, you will probably be overwhelmed by the choices available. Instead of reading, you will procrastinate reading. Unless you narrow down your choices, you will not be able to start reading a book. Because there is no one best book. There are thousands of best books.

Photo by Shiromani Kant on Unsplash

Moreover, the internet and social media have made it easier for us to see all the different options that are available to us. We no longer have to physically stand in a store to determine what our options are.

How to deal with the paradox of choice?

From the above discussion, we have busted the myth that giving people more choice is positive and makes people feel in control. Providing more options make people incapable of making decisions faster or even avoiding the decision as they fear making an unsatisfactory decision.

To deal with the paradox of choice, we can follow below strategies:

  • Avoiding analysis paralysis: You can’t deny the number of options available but what you can do is have a standard to narrow down the options according to your preferences. Try making trivial decisions like what to wear within 10 seconds. The more time you spend, the more paralysed you will feel.
    For instance, instead of roaming or scrolling the whole set of options for a t-shirt, filter out what you like. Say, a polo t-shirt which is grey. You might have heard about Steve Jobs wearing the same outfit every day. This is not because he doesn’t have any other clothes but to reduce decision fatigue. He didn’t want to waste brainpower on choosing an outfit each morning.
  • Know What You Want: Be precise in your needs. Be it as small as choosing ice cream or coffee, wearing an outfit to as big as getting admission to a course you like, finding a partner for yourself, etc. It enhances your decision-making capabilities, and you can avoid analysis paralysis.
  • Make non-reversible Decisions: When we have an opportunity to reverse the decision we have made in the past, we often fall into the loop of spending more time on the same thing again and again. Indeed, when we are unable to change our minds, we are more satisfied because our brains use many psychological processes to convince ourselves that we have made the best decision.
  • Control Expectations: Don’t run after perfection. Nothing is perfect in this world. Even if you can find the best at that moment, something better than it will be there. Aim for “good enough” rather than “the best”. Being willing to aim for a good enough outcome simplifies decision making and improves satisfaction. Reduce regretting your decisions. Regretting your decisions will pollute your decision-making.

Having many choices should be leveraged to educate yourself about the available options. Never let the paradox of choice paralyse your decision-making ability. You can always experiment with the things you generally prefer (like trying Mocha instead of Cappuccino) but having a strong judgement surely assists you in making better and fast decisions.

References:
The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

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I'm Vi3.14n. A Developer. A Mathematics Enthusiast. A Photographer. Human. Being.

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Vipin Kumar

Vipin Kumar

I'm Vi3.14n. A Developer. A Mathematics Enthusiast. A Photographer. Human. Being.

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