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Do you sometimes have the feeling of having chosen wrong? Do you think you would have been happier choosing another option? Sociologists and psychologists call that state the “evil of well-being”, which is caused by the excess of options. Is it the paradox of modernity.
Generally, we think that to maximize our well-being, we need to maximize our freedom of choice. In theory, if we are free we can do everything in our power to improve our well-being.
The way that society has found to maximize that well-being consists in maximizing the choice. We think that the more options we have, the freer we will be and, therefore, the better we will feel. This idea has become so deeply rooted in our minds that no one questions it. A reflection of this is that, in any store, even of modest dimensions, you will find at least a dozen options for each product. However, that huge amount of options has a downside.
The paralysis of the election
When we have so many options, we are forced to decide continuously, at any time. From the biggest things to the smallest.
The first problem, although it may seem paradoxical, is that deciding continuously is not liberating but can lead to what is called paralysis by analysis. With so many options to choose from, it’s harder to do it. The second “adverse effect” of the elections is that, although we can avoid that paralysis and choose, at the end we will feel less satisfied with the result.
A very interesting experiment conducted at Columbia University revealed the “adverse effects” of having a large number of options. The researchers placed in a greengrocer a table with 6 jars of jam, which later became 24.
The funny thing was that of the people who entered the greengrocers, 60% approached the table with more options but only 3% of them came to buy. On the contrary, only 40% of the people approached the table with fewer options, but of those, 31% bought a jar.
What does this study teaches us?
We are attracted by the number of options, but when there are too many we simply get blocked. In fact, our brain can only manage 3 or 4 alternatives at a time. When we have many possibilities to choose from, we are assailed by the “paralysis of choice” because we are afraid of choosing badly.
If we have dozens of options to choose from and we opt for one that ultimately disappoints us, we think we could have chosen better and end up regretting our choice.
More options, less satisfaction
When we must decide we are also victims of what economists call cost-opportunity, which means that the value we give to things depends on what we compare them with.
When there are so many options, we are more likely to imagine the attractive characteristics of the alternatives we have discarded, so it is more likely that we feel less satisfied with the option we have chosen.
In short, that huge amount of alternatives is worse.
It is not always necessary to make decisions, a process that becomes mentally exhausting, especially when it comes to small decisions. Feeling satisfied is not always bad.
When there is only one type of pants, you can only buy that one. If finally you are not satisfied, the fault will not be yours because you had no other choice. You will not think about the other models you saw and how you would look.
If you have dozens of types of pants to choose from and buy one that is uncomfortable or that does not convince you at all, it is obvious that the fault is yours since there were other alternatives available but you did not choose them. Then you think you could have chosen better. You regret the decision you made and, as a result, you feel less satisfied with the purchase made.
It is no coincidence that in recent years the level of anxiety and depression has skyrocketed in the industrialized world, where stores have always plenty of opportunity to offer. The need to choose continuously and the disappointment that we experience with those decisions is one of the factors that feed this epidemic wave.
That means that, from time to time, nothing happens if you stay within a limited range of options. Embracing minimalism can simplify your life and make you feel much more satisfied and happy with the decisions you make.
There is a critical line, beyond which the excess of options becomes a weight, rather than a liberation.
Iyengar, S. S. & Lepper, m. R. (2000) When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 79(6): 995-1006.