Psychologist Barry Schwartz has written a book, The Paradox of choice: Why more is less, describing a serious side effect of our culture that offers us so much freedom through infinite choices without limits. We are given so many options, so many choices, that they paralyze us and we become preoccupied with selecting the right option, making the best choice. Sometimes this stress results in not making any choice at all. When we do make a decision, we wind up less satisfied than if we had chosen from a smaller selection of options.
When people are presented with infinite (or seemingly infinite) options, they expect one of those options to be perfect. The bar is so high that any flaw in the desired perfection seems devastating, and we have a huge capacity for regretting our decision because what we chose was “wrong.” If we only have a few options, we are more likely to be satisfied, because we’re so limited in which choices we can make. How can you go wrong when you can only choose from a few things?
Though we cannot really combat the fact that clothing stores have a hundred different styles of top or bottom for us to try on, grocery stores have a ridiculous selection of food and personal items, or twenty restaurants are located within a few blocks of each other in our cities… we can do a lot to limit this paralysis in our own lives.
Limiting the contents of our wardrobe, cupboards, and shelves can do a lot for our true freedom from choices. I’ve felt more free as a minimalist — with arguably less choice about what I can wear or eat or put on my hair on any given day — than I ever did with a stuffed closet or a pantry full of nonperishables I had stocked up on.
To get dressed, I have three options: pants, shorts, dress. I have three pairs of jeans, two pairs of shorts, and four dresses. I have a pretty small selection of tops, all of which are flattering and comfortable. There is no going wrong when I get dressed, because I know I have narrowed down my wardrobe to a few choices that all work. Bam. Dressed. Looks good, feels good, has to be good because I don’t have other options. And that is so freeing.
My kitchen may look sparse, but I only buy what I will eat in the foreseeable future. I used to keep a pantry stocked with boxes and boxes of pasta and jars of sauce. Pasta was always a backup if I didn’t feel like cooking something more demanding of me — like the fresh foods going bad in my fridge and getting wasted. Now I plan out meals and only buy the minimum I need to get through a week in groceries so nothing gets wasted and I don’t have an excuse to cop out and make something easy, because I don’t keep as many convenience foods on hand!
Click here to see a YouTube clip of Barry Schwartz discussing the paradox of choice.
Do you feel more free with less choice?
13 thoughts on “The paradox of choice”
I’m trying at the moment to eat up the supplies of convenience food and so on so that I have to meal plan and eat fresh food! No more crammed cupboards….
It is so nice not to have to rifle through everything to see what you have!
It’s funny you mention this, because I’ve been thinking about this book lately (although I haven’t read it, I just keep hearing about it). There is a commercial on the radio here about “if you like me, you like having a ton of choices!” and I don’t remember at all about what the commercial is for or whatever, but I HATE having a ton of choices for this reason! How can one possibly weigh the pros and cons of outcomes if there are a ton of choices? I would much rather have just a few choices where I can more easily pick out the option that’s best for me, instead of having to use the brain power to filter through allllllll the options. People these days have enough THINGS to occupy their attention (both physical and not) that it’s so much nicer to have one less thing to worry about.
I agree! Choices are bogging us down. Getting rid of excess clothing, food, shoes, whatever only means that it’s easier for me to get through my day! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting!
This reminds me of the two years I lived in Cairo, Egypt as a teenager. I don’t know how it is now (because I lived back in the mid 90s) but when I lived there, options were limited. Oh, if you wanted fresh meat, fruit, veggies, and so on, there were plenty. But unlike here in the States, the options for clothing, convenience foods, makeup and even sanitary supplies were very limited. The stores also tended to be very, very small. The gas station convenience stores here tend to be bigger than a lot of the grocery stores in Cairo (well, Digla and Maadi).
I remember, after living there for about 8 months, I came back to the States. When my family and I went to Wal-Mart (not even a Super Wal-Mart…just one of the “small” original ones), I nearly hyperventilated. There was just so much stuff and the shelves seemed to tower and the racks bulged. If I wanted crackers, there were 72048 options as opposed to 2. I didn’t buy anything that first trip. I thought I had missed the selection while in Egypt but realized I had adjusted to not having it. And I spent more time focused on family and friends and doing stuff than I did on what I could buy or had bought.
Never thought about it as too much choice being paralyzing but I can see it.
Wow, your time in Egypt sounds fascinating. I’ve always wanted to travel somewhere else. That’s a choice I can get behind! Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your ideas.
My only cousin came from East Germany and I visited them there twice when I was 14 or 15 – they had plenty of money but no choice. It was the late 70s and I felt this was very limiting from my teen point of view. When the country opened, she was utterly overwhelmed with the choices in the mall my dad showed her and has had difficulty adjusting to society ever since, I feel, both consumer-wise and socially. She moves regularly between her old home and what used to be “west” Germany and doesn’t seem able to settle. Now I’ve pretty much lost contact.
However, as soon as I became independent of my own family and had my first child, I realised that I myself prefer less choice. Although I was sucked up in a lot of consumer behaviour for a long time, I know I have always preferred to shop in smaller stores with less choice, as long as there was more or less what I needed, just not a choice of 10 or 20 types. I still do – even more so now that I have embraced a simpler lifestyle. It’s just less stressful – and that’s without even knowing what US shopping is like, it’s bad enough in Europe! People wonder that I don’t go to the “big” cities more often but I just find the choice overwhelming and no longer want to go anywhere to shop, anyhow, so now my visits are rare and planned, usually for a cultural event or museum visit or to enjoy a botanical garden or similar…
Thanks for sharing! I agree, as long as the store has what I need, I don’t need to choose from 20 of them, I just need one. 🙂 It’s refreshing to see that it’s possible to travel or go out without the pressure to buy something always looming.
Oh, and I have also long since stopped stockpiling food or clothes or anything else, which I had the impression I was “supposed to” when my kids were younger. There isn’t too much of anything now, really, in this house and we enjoy fresh food and good quality wares instead.
Sorry for the double post!
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