More On The Paradox of Choice

More About the Paradox of Choice

I love strolling up and down the aisles of office supply stores. I love it! Something about being surrounded by a billion different types of pens, pencils, Post-It pads, binders and folders that brings me an irrational joy. I don’t understand it and it has been a while since I tried to. I know people who feel this way about beer, cigars, coffee, and chocolate. I was reminded of this as I finished reading a piece about the impact of choice on human decision-making.

I have read a few studies like this recently and the findings are pretty consistent; having more choices tends to make us less, rather than more happy. Certainly, we need a minimum number of choices to feel our choice was unrestricted, but the lie between “not enough” and “too many” is not particularly clear.

So what does this have to do with organizational science? Well, quite a bit if you think about it for a second. Many jobs are all about choice. We must choose between different strategies, job applicants, software packages, etc. Heck, given the size of my inbox, I often have to select what e-mails I will respond to first. So if you feel overwhelmed, you are not alone.

Thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom. We don’t always have the option of reducing the number of alternatives from which to make our selection, but we can reduce the cognitive load this represents. Here are a few techniques (off the top of my head, so this is not a comprehensive list) you can use to reduce the negative impact of “too much choice” on your emotional states and decision quality.

  1. Expertise: Decision-making is essentially a function of information processing. The human mind can only process so much at any given time. Early research on human information processing reveals that experts and novices process information differently. Without going into too much detail, it is safe to say that developing expertise in a specific selection task will increase the efficiency with which it is done, and reduce the strain associated with it.
    1. There is a problem with this: Efficiency does not guarantee quality. It is very possible to become very good at making the wrong choice. I have seen this WAY too often. Once this happens, it is difficult to evaluate decision quality. I have known people do a specific type of work for 20 years. On paper, they have a ton of experience, but once you listen to them it becomes clear that they have managed to “get by” for way too long. Of course, by that time you have already given them the contract and they are quickly on their way to getting another 2 years of “experience.” Hum… I’m rambling, aren’t I?
  2. Decision Rules: This may seem obvious, but perhaps it’s obvious enough that it escapes notice. We seldom approach our choices in an unstructured manner. We have objectives to fulfill that can be represented as criterion. If we are engaged in a selection task for example, we can eliminate all candidates without a certain degree (better yet we can “include” candidates with a specific degree since inclusionary and exclusionary selection can have slightly different results).use of decision rules helps us to reduce the number of choices, making our tasks that much easier. So, come up with plenty of decision rules… just make sure they are of the sort that lead to a better, not worse choice.
  3. Satisficing: You may not be familiar with the word (I know MS Office doesn’t like it), but you have probably done this a bunch of times. Satisficing is a decision strategy that essentially sets up a minimum threshold after which the decision is made. This strategy is best understood be contrasting it with optimizing, where a decision-maker selects the absolute best among all the alternatives. The search does not end until the best is identified. Each of these have different ramifications for decision-quality, but let’s be pragmatic, how often do we have the basis upon which to objectively select the best of anything? In case you missed the connection, it is tough to satisfice without decision rules =)

I just went though this with a colleague of mine. Her choice was to remain in her current job, or accept another offer. She was having a tough time arriving at a decision. The list of pro’s and con’s were voluminous.  She was anxious about making the wrong choice. I want to believe I helped her make her decision using the techniques above. For the record, I think she made a great choice!


~ by George Guajardo on July 8, 2009.

6 Responses to “More On The Paradox of Choice”

  1. Something I’ve used a bunch of times is to create a decision tree and assign probabilities to each step in the decision – a little different than what you’re saying and it sound kinda complicated. But there are a couple of MSExcel based programs that can create the tree for you – you simply input the decisions and probabilities and it calculates the outcomes.

    I put in a variety of “things I should do” and the outcomes that are possible. Based on the probability outcomes I get my priority list.

    Not always perfect but I find that taking the process into a “math” world changes how you frame the list of things to do and gives you confidence to attack and stay with specific things – eliminating the second guessing and jumping back and forth between ideas/tasks, etc.

    • @ Paul this sounds like a great technique, particularly for more complicated decisions. It sounds like you esentially assign a weight to each of your decision rules and the software runs the calculations on the fly. Its pretty neat.

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  4. I’ve heard that we decide with our hearts (emotions) and then rationalize the decisions with our brains. How does this fit into paradox of choice?

    • Wow! What a great question! It took me a little bit to formulate a response, but here it goes…

      I recall that line of research from my time in graduate school. I know researchers found some evidence for the emotion-decision-logic chain of events, but it was far from overwhelming. The major problem with this theory (the name escapes me) is the causality question. This chain of events is more accurately described as circular, rather than linear. That is to say, they influence each other quite a bit more than the simple, linear model suggests.

      As for how this relates to the paradox of choice, I think it highlights the fact that while our decision feel rational, they often aren’t. Indeed, there are a whole host of cognitive mechanisms designed to reduce the amount of rational thinking we have to do for most decisions. These kick into overdrive when we experience a cognitive load, for instance when we face an overwhelming number of choices. This is why it is important to systematize decision-making when we are able to. This reduces the cognitive load and forces us to make a more rational choice.

      This should not be taken to mean that emotions have no constructive role to play in decision-making, but that is a topic for another day =)

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