The Unexpected Impact of an Abundance of Choice
The word choice is nearly synonymous with freedom in the edifice of modern, industrialized societies. Facing an ocean of choices in a society where decision-making is omnipresent in everyday life, however, the word choice has come to be associated with intense regret, self-blame, decreased satisfaction in decision-making, and even with the skyrocketing rates of clinical depression, as revealed by recent research into the topic. As the issue of an abundance of choice pertains to me, it pertains to others of my age range and culture as well, such as choosing which of the thousands of colleges to apply to. Or, if we think about more general examples, what to buy at the grocery store out of the tens or even hundreds of options for each product.
First and foremost, let’s discuss the heart of the problem: expectations and responsibility. Despite that one with a greater range of options will more likely have the opportunity to choose a better one than with limited options, expectations and responsibility shift in the two situations. When one has a greater range of options, one expects a near perfect outcome, but when that outcome does not meet one’s expectations, the blame falls on oneself. However, with a limited range of options, one is more likely to blame the world for negative outcomes and be pleasantly surprised by outcomes above one’s low expectations. In the words of psychologist Barry Schwartz, “As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people live better, but they won’t feel better about how they live.” (“Choice”). Through his research, Schwartz has shown the validity of the aforementioned ideas about an abundance of choice.
Interestingly, yet unfortunately, the transfer of responsibility from the outside world to oneself when faced with a supposedly avoidable negative outcome may have a grave result: depression. In a study concerning this connection between abundance of choice and depression, Richard Alleyne, a science correspondent, writes,“[This] study believes that the problem is that when you have too much choice, you become obsessed about what your decision will say about you. Then when you have made the choice you worry that it is wrong.” Even worse, consider the implications of actually meeting with negative consequences, in contrast to a theoretical negative outcome. With a myriad of options for a myriad of decisions, over time, the individual faced with negative outcomes, an outcome perhaps due to chance, attributes that outcome to negative character. In other words, high expectations and self-blame can have adverse psychological effects, let alone depression.
Perhaps part of the problem of an abundance of choices is rooted in the false dichotomy that a decision has to be either right or wrong. Consider the possibility that a decision could be right, wrong, both, or neither, despite the immediate consequences, or maybe that one could choose the option with a “good enough” outcome. As Schwartz put it, “Learning to accept “good enough” will simply decision-making and increase satisfaction.” At least for everyday decisions, this may counteract the anxiety associated with meeting high expectations. When we consider situations with a great range of options to choose from, the case may be that the outcome of choosing one option may be just as good as that of another.
Let’s extend the aforementioned ideas to applying for jobs, turning the conversation to the choices made on both sides. Given a pool of qualified candidates, chances are that any candidate would do fine, yet the prevailing perception is that there must be a “right” person for the job. In actuality, the small differences that lead to one person being hired over another are probably not reliable indicators of future success at a job. By offering a job to a certain individual over the others, the interviewer is giving up, so to speak, the attractive qualities of the many other candidates, seeing those qualities as opportunity costs for hiring that individual. As a result, the interviewer is less satisfied. If that individual turns out to not be the “right” person for the job, the interviewer can feel regret and blame him- or herself for not choosing someone else. On the other side, the hypothetical “right for the job” candidate could have been accepted to many companies and has to decide which job to accept. He or she will most likely take responsibility for the decision, rather than attributing the decision to outside forces (e.g. this is the only job I can get and I need money), as well as having higher expectations due to that abundance of options. This individual may be less satisfied and be negatively impacted by making this decision, depending on this individual’s prior expectations and locus of control.
After delving into the unexpected impact of abundance of choice, the meaning behind the comical remark “Everything was better back when everything was worse” should be abundantly clear, yet not our course of action. Obviously, the ability to choose between different appealing options is vital to our way of life, but finding a nice balance of appealing options has been shown to be beneficial. As Schwartz put it, “With too few options, there is the risk that none will be satisfactory, whereas with too many, there is the risk of paralysis, confusion and dissatisfaction.” In modern, industrialized societies, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of too many options, rather than too few. By recognizing the pervasiveness of this issue in our lives, however, it is possible to come to solutions.
Alleyne, Richard. "Too Much Choice Leaving Us Bewildered and Depressed." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 21 Jan. 2010. Web. 05 June 2016.
Schwartz, Barry, and Andrew Ward. Doing Better but Feeling Worse: The Paradox of Choice (n.d.): 1-39. Swarthmore. Positive Psychology Network. Web. 2 June 2016.
Schwartz, Barry. "Is the Famous ‘paradox of Choice’ a Myth?" PBS. PBS, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 05 June 2016.