i immediately regret this decision.

paradox_choice_coverEver stared at Netflix for hours trying to figure out what to watch? Having a lot of options is sometimes a bad thing—that’s the paradox of choice.

Partly, that’s obvious: having more options means it takes more time and effort to analyze them. But the effects of choice can be subtle, too. For example, in one study of choice behavior, they tested how offering free samples affect jam sales. On one day, customers could choose from 24 different flavors to sample, and on the other they were offered only a few sample flavors. All 24 flavors could be purchased in either case. When more options were offered, more people sampled the jam, but fewer than half as many actually purchased some. So, that’s weird.

It’s weird because, intuitively, we think more is better. The majority of healthy people, when asked, say that if they were diagnosed with cancer, they would want to have a variety of treatment options to choose from. Cancer patients asked that question almost universally say just the opposite: they want the doctor to tell them the best treatment. Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors, Milwaukee custard stands have three. All else being equal (which it’s clearly not, if you’ve ever had frozen custard), which would people prefer? Having options seems appealing, right up until we’re actually making a choice.

An old concept in psychology is the Yerkes-Dodson law, in which performance on a task follows an inverted U-shape curve: we perform poorly when stress/anxiety levels are very low or very high, but perform best at moderate anxiety levels. Presumably, this happens because at low stress levels we’re too bored to engage in the task and at high levels we’re devoting cognitive resources to dealing with the stress rather than the task at hand. But somewhere in the middle is the optimum level of engagement. Given how cancer patients feel about choosing their treatments and the way people act with a surfeit of jam-sample options, I wonder if there’s a similar sort of inverted U-shaped curve for our preference for choices and/or autonomy in given situations. That would look something like this:


For decisions that are very important, or those that require some form of expertise (like medical treatments), people might not want choices. They’re playing with “live ammo” where the consequences of a bad outcome are dire. When people must make medical decisions for their themselves or their loved ones, they probably want the doctor to step in, because they know how guilty, or dead, they’ll feel if things go south.

But on the other end of the spectrum, options might be undesirable for simple, inconsequential decisions too. In Jurassic Park, “chaotician” Ian Malcolm claims to own only black and gray clothing, to avoid wasting time on selecting matching clothing. To Malcolm, clothing is like the free jam samples: something trivial for which time spent deciding should be minimized.

In the book, Schwarz talks about the distinction between “satisficers” and “maximizers.” Satisficers are people who will usually select the first option that meets their needs—they find the first thing that’s “good enough” and move on. Maximizers, in contrast, aim to make the best possible decisions, leading to agonizingly long decision-making processes as well as regret, despair, and impetigo.

I wonder if another way to think about these different types of decision makers is in the shape of their “option preference” curve (which, again and to be clear, is something I made up that I’m musing about). For maximizers, almost everything is in the meaty “choices are good” middle part of the curve, so their curve is flatter and squatter. For satisficers, everything is on the “choices are bad” edges of the curve—their curve has a narrow peak—because for them, most choices are irrelevant as long as at least one option is satisfactory.

Interestingly, maximizers tend to be less happy overall than satisficers. One reason is that maximizers stress themselves out trying to ensure their choice is the best. Another reason is opportunity costs: what you lose when you make a decision. If you choose between two different pairs of shoes, the opportunity cost is the pair you didn’t buy. If you choose between a dozen options, your opportunity costs could increase by an order of magnitude. Put another way, the actual cost or benefit of a choice can’t be measured in a vacuum, but must be weighed against the all the other choices one could have made.

In that way, impulse purchases are likely to make one happier because the opportunity costs are lower. The more options you consider and the more time you take, the less likely your decision will stack up. And then, it even matters what we compare ourselves against: bronze medal winners are happier about their performance than silver medal winners, perhaps because silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medalist, and know they were just thatclose to winning. Bronze medalists might more likely see just how close they were to not receiving a medal at all. In a more mundane sense, if you’re a half-hour late for a meeting, it’s far more annoying to find out it was delayed and you only missed it by a minute or two than to find out it went off on time.

•     •     •

Schwarz offers some advice about how to make better decisions, such as trying to make good choices rather than perseverating on perfect choices. However, it’s not clear whether these suggestions make for better decisions, or simply help you feel better about the decisions you make; certainly anecdotal evidence would suggest that making the “right” decision can feel horrible.

If there’s a take home message here, it’s that human decision making is flawed and weird. Some weirdness isn’t really surprising and often stems from our overreliance on cognitive shortcuts and assumptions. Even still, other examples are plain ridiculous: say you’re given a choice between apartments that are all roughly the same except for how close they are to your office. A is $500 and 5 minutes from work and B is $400 and 20 minutes from work. Now throw in apartment C, which is $600 and 10 minutes from work. Obviously there’s no reason to choose apartment C, but simply having it as an option makes people more likely to choose apartment B than they would otherwise. Essentially irrelevant information can upset our decision making, even when we know it’s irrelevant. Your brain is a scumbag.


5 thoughts on “i immediately regret this decision.

  1. Barry Schwartz was my Intro to Psychology professor at Swarthmore College. It was held in an auditorium, with over 200 students. We had to sit in the same seats each class session, so that he could memorize our names and faces. Class participation was 20% (or more?) of the grade. Professor Schwartz would walk up and down the graded steps, calling on us to answer questions throughout the class. He took attendance too. He was an excellent teacher.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Sounds like a good teacher. Also evidently a daring one, making participation count for a big class like that. I recently watched his talk about “practical wisdom”, which was good even though I’m not normally super enthused about TED.

      About the name thing: once had a prof in our department who was famous for memorizing everyone’s name before the first class, using the ID pictures on the enrollment log. 200 students.

      1. TED talks… blech! Your attitude toward TED is very much like mine: not super enthused.

        I have been kind of disappointed in Barry Schwartz in the past few years, as he has gained pop culture status. I did like the ideas in “The Paradox of Choice”, when I read the book, awhile ago. I’m trying to remember the good as much as possible. The more I learn about most things, the more I find to criticize. That isn’t uniformly true, but close!

        I can say this: You write beautifully. What kind of scientist are you, exactly?

        1. Thanks very much! I am a cognitive psychologist / cognitive neuroscientist by training, though I am no longer in academia.

          I agree that it’s easy to end up a knee-jerk contrarian. Maybe that’s the Dunning-Kruger effect in action, maybe it’s easier to pick out mistakes than to really engage with something, maybe it’s age-induced stubbornness. I’ve been trying to just take what I can learn from stuff and then move on, rather than getting hung up on things I disagree with. This is not nearly foolproof, although it does seem to reduce instances of “someone is wrong on the internet!” outrage.

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