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Is having "too much" choice actually a negative?

By Michael Crump | 13 November 2017

Could having “too much choice” be stressing us out? A study from the National Academy of Sciences shines some light on why too much choice might not be a great thing.

“Choices between two highly valued items such as a digital camera and a camcorder, were associated with the most positive feelings and the greatest anxiety, compared with choices between items of low value like a desk lamp and a water bottle, or between items of different values (low-high),” the study revealed.

“Functional MRI scans showed activity in two regions of the brain, the striatum and the prefrontal cortex, both known to be involved in decision-making.” This new brain study effectively showed why making difficult choices is no fun at all.

The Guardian says, “Increased choice, then, can make us miserable because of regret, self-blame and opportunity costs. Worse, increased choice has created a new problem: the escalation in expectations.”

dark-haired woman smiling

When too much choice paralyses you

If you could discover three myths about choice OR learn three strategies for improving your decision-making, which would you opt for? When inspirational people tell extraordinary stories – they chose to win. It’s the sort of thing that adds further fuel to your fire: the notion that being free to choose is the highest virtue, that choice is a right, that making our own decisions is what brings meaning and success.

But is this true? There’s a groundswell of expert opinion that argues for an opposing view. What if the cult of choice has gone too far? What if our so-called freedom is causing nasty side-effects like paralysis, under-achievement, even trauma?

Renowned psychologist Barry Schwartz acknowledges the positive aspects of choice, but points out two common consequences of having too many options to puzzle over.

The first is feeling stuck: choosing between, say, 50 products that all do approximately the same thing is a cause of stress and confusion for most people. The second effect is remorse, and comes after the decision has finally been made: people can’t enjoy the thing they went for because they can’t stop thinking about the other 49 they didn’t.

Malcolm Gladwell says otherwise. He wrote The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a best seller that popularised “thin-slicing”, the notion that we all have the (flawed) capacity to make complex calls based on little or no direct experience. The book is most interesting when examining the difficulty researchers have trying to understand human subjects who don’t understand themselves. Are rational decisions the best? While logic appears to be your best asset in situations that are urgent or unfamiliar, for everything else it’s the sub-conscious you should let run the show.

colourful shirts on clothes rack

Put choice into perspective 

When the stakes aren’t life or death (or the scenario not crazily new to you), the thing to remember is that your internal mental systems never switch off. This results in months or years of experience ‘behind the controls’ of your own life that you’re not even aware of.

The moral? Don’t be afraid to go with the flow and let autopilot land the plane.

Ever notice how people in the future always seem to be wearing the same thing? When you don’t have to decide what to wear each morning, suddenly you have way more time to build spaceships and colonise galaxies. You too can aim for the stars with the aid of these helpful ideas …

Trust your gut. Human beings have the capacity to process information so rapidly that decisions made purely on intuition are often better thought-out than they seem.

See decision-making as a finite resource

Choice is a currency that should be spent wisely. Each time you make a decision you’re subtracting from your daily supply, so it doesn’t make sense to throw big energy at tiny decisions. Where to eat, which bus to catch, how to take your coffee – if these issues are taking up more than a nanosecond of time (before, during, and after the decision itself) then you are both perpetrator and victim of theft, robbing yourself of the power to efficiently decide the important stuff: what do you want to achieve in your working day, where you’d like to holiday next month.

Banish multiple criteria in favour of the most important one. Ever had a tough decision to make? Every known from the first moment what you were going to do but thought about it for weeks on end anyway?

Like choice is itself, “considering all the angles” is usually regarded as a self-evident good. Sometimes decisions are so tough it’s tempting to load the pros and cons into a spreadsheet and assign different weights and values to all the different factors. But even Excel can’t tell you what’s actually important.

Don’t weigh up 15 criteria – isolate the most important one and make your decision based on that. It’s what you’re going to do end up doing anyway. If you’re having trouble with analysis-paralysis, consult a peer or co-worker who’s been in asimilar predicament. Their opinion probably has more value than research you do alone.

green apple vs pink donut

Find perspective by setting the right bar

In 1956 economist Herbert Simon coined the term “satisficing” to describe an approach to decision making. While satisficers take action once criteria are met, maximisers are invested in making the ‘best possible’ decision, a process that eats up personal resources.

Safisficing isn’t about accepting mediocrity – it’s about rejecting the torment of maximisation. By all means set demanding criteria when making a decision, but as soon as your criteria are met take action and move on.

Online study can lead to success - make your choice

Head to Upskilled and find a flexible, online course. Yes, there are over 100 options, so you will be "spoiled for choice" but we have specialised Education Consultants that are trained to help you narrow down your options, based on what you want to learn, what your career goals are, and how much time you have to study. Contact an Upskilled EC here, or call 1300 469 853 anywhere within Australia. 

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