I was recently shopping for jam. Standing in a huge supermarket aisle, looking at all the options available to me, I wondered did I want strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, plum, damson, gooseberry or rhubarb? What about lemon curd or honey? What about marmalade? Thick cut or thin? And once I had made a choice about what flavour of sweet spread I desired, did I want the supermarket own brand, or did I want to pay a little more for a standard branded version? Or did I want to splash out and buy the most expensive, homemade-healthy-and-wholesome brand?
In the end I bought butter, and left it at that.
Too often in our lives we feel paralysed by choice. The wealth of options available to us in every area of our existence is utterly overwhelming, and it’s no surprise that in self-defence we sometimes shut down and refuse to make any decision at all. It reminds me of the stress response, fight, flight or freeze. We freeze. This paralysis induced by choice is an increasingly common phenomenon in developed countries, as our lives have become much easier and more affluent than they were a hundred or so years ago. We are lucky that most people have the luxury of choosing between many different options when deciding what to eat, what to wear, what to listen to or what book to read. But the flipside is that so much choice may not be healthy, and it can actually make us more unhappy than we would have been otherwise.
Barry Schwartz, American psychologist and celebrated author of The Paradox of Choice, believes that this abundance of choice makes us unhappy for a number of reasons. Firstly, according to him, as soon as we make a choice, we regret it, as undoubtedly the option we chose isn't perfect. If I chose raspberry jam, I might have felt, when spreading it on my toast at home, that really it wasn’t as nice as blackcurrant. Secondly, we feel as though we’re missing out on the options we didn’t choose - to think, I passed up the opportunity to eat blackcurrant jam! Thirdly, with so many options available to us, we develop higher expectations. With so many types of jam on offer, one of them must be perfect, right? And finally, we end up blaming ourselves for making a bad choice, when we are inevitably disappointed with the result. I had so many options, why can’t I even make good choices about jam?
The example of jam is of course a simplified one, but it’s true that we face an unnecessary amount of choice in almost every area of life. The above effects could apply to anything, from choosing food to choosing clothes, to more serious things like choosing a phone contract, a car, a house, a job, or even a partner.
To illustrate his point Schwartz uses the example of buying jeans. In the past, there was only one type of jeans available, and they didn’t quite fit anyone, but you put up with them because there was no alternative. Nowadays, there are more different types of jeans than it’s possible to count, as Schwartz found out when he went shopping for a new pair. He explains the concept of self-blame inspired by choice:
“One consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why? Who’s responsible? the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? But when there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why? Who’s responsible? it is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different pairs of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, and even when the results of the decisions are good, they feel disappointed about them, they blame themselves.”
You can watch this TED talk to find out more about Schwartz’ ideas. It’s several years old, so some of what he says is a bit outdated, but his key ideas haven’t changed. Even if you are already familiar with Schwartz’ work, it’s worth thinking about how the paradox of choice appears in your life. Could it be that there are decisions you are putting off making, for fear of making the wrong one? It is often the case that whatever decision you make, you feel some twinge of regret. Even if there’s no doubt you chose the right path, you may wonder what would have happened if you had chosen a different one. And if you are disappointed by your choice (which is not unlikely, as no choice is ever absolutely perfect), it is easy to imagine that you would not have been disappointed if you had only made a different one.
Schwartz highlights that some choice is usually better than no choice, but that too much choice can be a bad thing. The best scenario tends to be a limited amount of choice, defined within certain boundaries. That means using our beliefs, intuition, and value system to define boundaries, and making choices within those boundaries. In the end, I went home and made my own jam. I chose plum, as that was the only fruit we had!