Why having fewer choices can help us make smarter decisions

Here’s how to cope with the paradox of choice.

By Lena Sotherin

When it comes to choice, less is always more. So says Professor Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice.

His book and subsequent TED Talk put him at the centre of the conversation around how affluent and industrialised markets equate freedom with choice.

In a supermarket, you might be faced with 20 different brands and 15 varieties of milk; in a cell phone store, there might be 20 brands and 30 contract options.

Even dating and watching TV are complex tasks requiring the skill to sift through thousands of options. And each choice can affect your identity and sense of self.

All this choice, says Schwartz, doesn’t just make things harder, it makes things worse.

With so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all.

In a famous study on choice, researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up two jam and chocolate tasting booths in an upmarket gourmet store. One booth had six options, and one had 30.

The result? 30 percent of the consumers faced with a smaller choice made a purchase, compared to only three percent of those faced with the bigger selection.

When their original set of options had been limited, participants reported greater satisfaction with their selections.

The more complex the decision-making process, the more likely it is for people to feel overwhelmed. Too much choice can also lead to disappointment and self-blame.

Not a problem when you’re choosing between chocolate and vanilla gelato; a big problem when you’re weighing a medical procedure or an insurance policy.

In The Art of Choosing, Iyejgar calls this the “choice overload problem”, and suggests various coping techniques.

Cut out extraneous alternatives, categorise for your needs, and think carefully about the outcomes of each choice.

In his book, Professor Schwartz has a simpler suggestion: lower your expectations.

“Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be,” he writes, “and what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results”.

  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.

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