We exist during a time characterized by an embarrassment of choice. Well, that assumes you live in an industrialized or developing nation/culture. Also, this statement assumes you have more than a few nickels to rub together. Since you are likely to meet those criteria if you are reading this blog, then I will use “we” in that admittedly limited sense.
So, every day we are bombarded with choice. Wake up and open your closet. There you will find an array of hopefully recently laundered clothing. Head to the bathroom and you will find a number of items, each of which was a result of a choice. That’s just the relatively trivial stuff, as we also make choices about who to marry, whether to have children (even if we didn’t chose, we kind of chose), what job offer to accept, what career to pursue, what car to buy, what city to live it, and where to go to college. I can’t imagine going through a single day without making at least a few choices.
This recently became the focus of a discussion for one of my LinkedIn groups. The central point of the discussion was to explore the possibility that we may have too much choice. Some argued that we experience an excess of choice and that it leaves us paralyzed, exhausted, depleted and unhappy. In many ways excess choice can be a detriment to the human experience. I agree that this could be true. Of course thinking like a psychologist (and a born contrarian) once we find a nice new theory, we do our damnedest to try to break it. In this case psychologists have sought to define boundary conditions for when choice can make us unhappy; when is this NOT true.
For me a big part of the answer comes from literature on different approaches to decision-making and differences in how individuals cope with a wealth of choice (hooray for Google scholar!). In this article speak about two approaches to decision-making that seem to influence how we feel about our decisions. Basically, these authors tested two approaches, maximizing (I always thought it was called optimizing, oops) and satisficing.
When someone uses the maximizing approach, they adopt a goal of making the absolute best possible decision. This mean that the maximize must seek out all possible alternatives, understand all the relevant information for each alternative and finally integrate all that information in order to make the best possible decision. Depending on the nature of the choice in question, this can be a pretty daunting challenge. It is tough enough taking this approach when choosing an anti-perspiring at WALly MARTinez (you know what place I mean). Now imagine using this same approach when selecting a new employee or a university.
By contrast, satisficers consider a limited subset of all possible choices and select the alternative from that limited pool that satisfies some pre-determined criterion. Rather than considering, researching and evaluating every conceivable toothpaste option a satisficer would limit her choice to any toothpaste available in the middle few rows of the shelf that is recommended by the ADA, mint flavored and on sale.
As it turns out, people adopting a satisficing approach are generally happier and I can completely understand it. Before learning about this phenomenon in graduate school, I used the satisficing strategy on occasion. Usually it was for things that were not particularly important, or I was in a huge rush. Perhaps I was tired. Whatever the reason, on some occasions I avoided my usual maximizing strategy (or what passed for it). I never noticed whether or not it made me happy, and I cannot honestly tell you I remember any given example. But I do get the sense that those decisions were faster than normal. Once I was exposed to this area of research, I made the connection and decided to try to use a satisficing strategy more often. I realized I had a choice in how I chose (see what I did there?). This approach has served me well. I don’t even approach a maximizing strategy unless the decision is incredibly important and even then I understand the limits of knowable information. The alternative here is prolonged vacillation and inaction. I may not be the happiest person in the world as a result of this, but I can tell you for certain that I am less afflicted by stress than people around me that try to make the best possible decision. I literally don’t sweat the small stuff.
I would like us all to take away two things from all this. First, we do not HAVE to be paralyzed by choice. Yes, our environment presents us with what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming array of choices, but we can choose how to cope with it. We can choose a better path. Second, reducing the amount of choice available is not the way to deal with abundance of choice. The only person unhappier than the person making a difficult decision is the person that was denied the choice. We should not seek to return to some pastoral ideal that exists only in our mind, rather we should seek a better way of coping with ever increasing amounts of choice and related information. Restricting choice can only lead to bad things, not the least of which is psychological reactance. Let’s not talk of cutting off the face to spite the nose.