SSS #7: The Paradox of Choice


Disclaimer: Much of this article is quoted directly from a book called, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. Proper citation practices would have riddled this piece with quotation marks and parentheses. For your reading pleasure, I skipped all of that. Instead, I’d like to start off by saying I credit the entirety of what you’re about to read to Barry Schwartz. Enjoy.

I’m terrible at making decisions. So much so that I’ve left a handful of major decisions in my life up to other people. Here are three examples that come to mind:

  1. I applied to one college. I attended Penn State University because two of my older cousins went there and said I should go too.
  2. I did zero research when it came to choosing a Surgeon for my LASIK procedure. A good friend referred me to the doctor he used. That was enough to plop down $2,500 and risk my eye-sight.
  3. I let my younger cousin choose the jeweler we used for the engagement rings we gave our wives. After he did the major legwork, I showed up the day my cousin paid for his ring and chose mine in about 30 minutes.

In all three of these major life events, I preferred to avoid the hardest part of every decision: the research, testing, experimenting phase. Thankfully, all of these decisions worked out. But it’s not just major life decisions I’m bad at. I’m also hilariously bad at the small stuff. Picking a restaurant for date night is impossible without going down the Yelp rabbit-hole. Choosing which sights to see in a new city requires a long visit to the Trip Advisor rabbit-hole. Deciding what to watch on Netflix is a research project for me.

This gaping hole in my artillery lead me to read a book called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. The author put into words the lifelong feelings I had surrounding the difficulty of making decisions. The basic premise of the book is more is less; too many options is a greater problem than too few options. The culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction.

Schwartz is a psychologist that coined the term, “Official Dogma”. The Official Dogma of all Western Industrialized Societies goes like this: if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, we must maximize individual freedom. The way to maximize individual freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have. The more freedom people have, the more welfare they have. Although this idea of maximizing choice to maximize welfare is embedded deep in the soil of most industrialized countries, Schwartz argues it’s not true.

Examples of When More is Less


The table above is worth 1,000 words. All I need to say is this: Think about how you feel when you're making decisions in the right column vs. the left column.

Why Decision-Making is Difficult

The choices people make define their existence. A large array of options is discouraging for two reasons. First, it forces us to increase the amount of effort that goes into making a decision. Secondly, it may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose. Some factors to consider:

Regret. Anticipated regret will make decisions harder to make. Post-decision regret will make them harder to enjoy.

Opportunity Cost. When you say yes to one thing, you say no to everything else. Selecting one imperfect alternative forces you to think of the benefits of all other alternatives. In the short run, we regret a bad educational choice. In the long run, we regret a missed educational opportunity. In the short run, we regret a broken romance. In the long run, we regret a missed romantic opportunity.

Escalation of Experience. Choosing the better option raises your standard. This prevents you from being able to go back to the prior “less than desirable” option.

Self-blame. We take on too much personal responsibility for decisions that yield bad outcomes

Self-image. We believe our decisions reveal something significant about ourselves to others. A man may be hesitant to pick a Romantic Comedy for movie night. A woman might be hesitant to suggest football, wings, and beer on Thursday night.

Time, effort, opportunity costs, anticipated regret, and the like are fixed costs that we “pay” up front in making a decision, and those costs then get “amortized” over the life of the decision.

Two Types of Decision Makers


A satisficer has criteria and standards. She searches until she finds an alternative that meets those standards, and at that point, she stops. To satisfice is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.

It is easier for a satisficer to avoid social comparison than for a maximizer. Learning that “good enough” is good enough may automatically reduce concern with how others are doing. Social comparison is less of an issue for satisficers.

Maximizers. (I’m this one)

Maximizers engage in more comparisons than satisficers, both before and after they make decisions. Maximizers take longer than satisficers to decide. Maximizers spend more time than satisficers comparing their decisions to the decisions of others. Maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a decision is made. Maximizers are more likely to spend time thinking about hypothetical alternatives to the decisions they’ve made. Maximizers generally feel less positive about their decisions.

Maximizers savor positive events less than satisficers and do not cope as well (by their own admission) with negative events. After something bad happens to them, maximizers’ sense of well-being takes longer to recover. Maximizers tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers.

Overcoming The Paradox of Choice

Realize the choice of when to be a chooser is the most important choice I have to make.

How many crucial / critical decisions am I making in a given day? Week? Month? Year? Not many at all. If I had to guess, I feel like I make less than 12 decisions per year that will actually matter 5 years from now. Since that’s most likely the case, I should be focusing a disproportionate amount of time, effort, and resources to those 12 decisions and basically delegating, disregarding, or deleting the rest.

Learn to be selective in exercising choice. Start by identifying when a choice really matters.Then focus most of the energy there, even if it means letting other opportunities pass by.

Make 1 decision today that removes 1,000 decisions in the future.

Identify & implement rules, presumptions, standards, and routines. By deciding to follow a rule (for example, always wear a seat belt; never drink more than two glasses of wine in one evening), we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again. This kind of rule-following frees up time and attention that can be devoted to thinking about choices and decisions to which rules don’t apply.

Positive constraints are limitations we put on ourselves to make our lives more enjoyable.

I want to share a few positive constraints I’ve developed over the years. Most of these apply to Monday - Friday only since a large portion of my structure and routine goes out the window on the weekends.

  • Uniform: This helps me avoid the question, “What am I wearing today?” 5 times per week, 52 weeks per year = ~250 decisions avoided.
  • Dia and I eat the same thing every day. This makes grocery shopping extremely easy. This also helps us avoid the question, “What are we eating for breakfast / lunch / dinner today?” 4 meals/day x 5 days/week x 52 weeks = ~1,000 decisions avoided/year.
  • I haven’t had any alcohol since December 28th, 2014. ~1 opportunity/week = ~50 decisions avoided/year
  • When I workout, I strictly adhere to the prescribed weights for women instead of men. 3 WODs/week x 52 weeks = ~150 decisions avoided/year
  • Retirement. Dia & I invest all of our retirement money into one Total Market Index Fund. ~45,000 decisions avoided.

I thrive in structure. Most of us do. However, only a few of us apply it. These are just a few of many positive constraints I implemented to reduce the number of decisions I have to make in a given day.

Please, let me know: What’s one decision you can make today that will remove 1,000+ future decisions starting tomorrow?