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The Paradox of Choice

By Mariam Elshahawy


Many of us are instilled with the belief that an abundance of options is equal to freedom, but that is actually not the case according to psychologist Barry Schwartz.

But do we even know what freedom is?


If it is the google definition “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants”, then it is true that more options may limit our freedom and burden us, making us unsure of what we actually want. Even when we do make a choice there's always the “what if” question at the back of our minds, and we become trapped by the thought of missed opportunities.


Very bold of me to make these subjective statements trying to interpret your feelings, but I know I don't need to list the statistics and data that prove we are held back by doubt and fear. But here’s the scientific evidence if you’re still not convinced.


The neurons in our brain’s prefrontal cortex (region responsible for rational decision-making) are actually numbed when we feel anxious. This reduces the brain’s ability to avoid distractions, including intrusive thoughts and concerns, when making important decisions. Which is why our need to make the “perfect” choice results in our inability to make one at all. This is known as decision paralysis. 

In conclusion, our indecision is a way of avoiding the anxiety caused by needing to make a choice.


In today’s consumer culture we are surrounded by an OVERWHELMING abundance of options for every product or service imaginable. How long have you stared at the shelves of cereal at a grocery store trying to pick one, or at the fridge of milk with every type ranging from one from a cow to one from a nut?


It is no surprise that the paradox of choice contributes to the cycle of overconsumption and materialism we’re experiencing today. To optimize our options and make sure we’re making the best decisions possible, we constantly seek new products and experiences. This results in our patterns of excessive consumption driven by our belief that more options and possessions will lead to greater satisfaction and happiness. But actually all this is doing is increasing our expectations to unattainable levels, so naturally we become disappointed and frustrated. We’re always comparing our choices with the ones we didn't make, and what do we do next? Blame ourselves. Not only is this mentally exhausting, it is emotionally draining. Schwartz also states that this may be a huge contributor to the rising rates of depression:


“Opportunity cost subtracts from the satisfaction we get from what we chose, even if what we choose is terrific.”

In short:

More choices = more room for disappointment = greater chance of blaming ourselves for making the ‘wrong’ decision.


What to do about choice


In chapter 11 of his book Barry Schwartz recommends the following ways to implement the ‘paradox of choice’ in our everyday lives:


1. Choose when to choose

Focus your time and energy on decisions that truly matter and let go of the less important ones


2. Be a chooser not a picker

Choosers reflect on what makes a decision important while pickers are passive selectors from whatever is available. Be a chooser by eliminating options that add very little value to your life. Then Ask yourself what your desired outcome is, if you discover that none of the options meet your needs, start thinking about creating better options that do.


3. Embrace "good enough"

Recognize that seeking perfection is unrealistic and counterproductive. People often think settling is a bad thing, but focusing on meeting your basic criteria will lead to contentment and satisfaction.


4. Make your decisions nonreversible

Build upon what you have instead of second-guessing it


5. Practice gratitude and regret less

I’m pretty sure you’re starting to notice a pattern here, but appreciating what you already have rather than seeking something better will result in…wait for it.. contentment and satisfaction



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References




The Paradox of Choice book by Barry Schwartz




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