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The Agony of Choice: Can We have Too Much of Good Thing?

Research shows that the amount of positive emotion we create and maintain is related to how much choice we believe we have in our lives.  Of equal importance with regards our happiness is how we manage our thinking in relation to the decisions we make with regards the choices we believe we have.

For example, in a fascinating series of projects participants offered the opportunity of buying food products were far more likely to buy one of the products on offer when they had only 6 samples to choose from in contrast to having the option of choosing between 24 – 30 (Iyengar & Lepper 2000).  In another interesting example, individuals on being asked to choose a meaningful photograph of their time at university when allowed just a minute before making their choice reported being happier with their choice a year later then individuals who were given the opportunity of waiting 12 weeks before making their choice (cited by Style, 2011).

People, when it comes to the choices they make tend, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz to be either maximisers or satisfiers (Schwartz & Ward, 2004).  Maximisers invest a great deal of time weighing up the options available to them before they make their decision – they maximise, in other words the choices available to them.  A maximiser wanting to buy a new pair of jeans will visit a multitude of different shops, will try on several different pairs of jeans and will compare and contrast what’s on offer in relation to style, price and comfort before deciding which pair to buy.  This may or not be significant as the person in question is only buying a pair of jeans but consider for a moment just how problematic the maximisers mind-set could be when it comes to choosing say, which job offer to accept, which house to buy, which part of the country to live in, what type of car to buy, whether to marry and have children or not, where to go on holiday, and so on.  Having a great of deal of choice in matters such as these may appear a good thing but it can its drawbacks.   Maximisers can for example, waste a great deal of time deciding what choice they should make and having made that choice will invariably experience a great deal of stress and anxiety worrying all the time about whether they have made the right choice or not.  This in turn can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and regret.  Needless to say maximisers are rarely satisfying.

Satisfiers, by comparison take a much more pragmatic approach to life – they are far more likely to make choices based on what they actually need not on what they think they need, are happy with having just a few options open to them and are often content with the choices they make.

Maximisers tend to be perfectionist in their thinking, worry a great deal about what others think of them, have unrealistic expectations both for themselves and others, and are constantly on the lookout for something better – what they obtain is never good enough.  Satisfiers, by comparison, are easily pleased, they are grateful for what they have especially the simply things in life.  For them ‘good enough’ is always ‘good enough’, they rarely compare themselves to others, have realistic expectations for themselves and others and always appreciate what they’ve got – as a result satisfiers tend to be much happier then maximisers.  They may not be as wealthy, or possess as much in material terms as the maximiser but they are invariably better off in terms of their well-being.

Having choice and the time to choose needn’t always be a bad thing but it’s unlikely to have much of an influence on the quality of your life.  Maximisers, for example are not very good at understanding what is genuinely good for their well-being or what will bring them a genuine sense of satisfaction and achievement both immediately and in the long term hence the amount of anxiety, shame, and guilt they experience (ibid. p. 101).

Choice, as Schwartz says is a paradox (Schwartz, 2005).  We have a tendency to want more choice and yet the choices we are offered have a tendency to cause us more harm than good.  Having a multitude of food items to choose from when visiting a massive out-of-town supermarket may appear beneficial but can actually be problematic; firstly, we can waste an unbelievable amount of time trying to decide what to buy, worry about whether we have made the right decision or not and invariably end up buying far more food then we actually need.  We may think we want all the food we buy when we visit the supermarket but do we really need all that food? I don’t think so.

Most of us will experience the agony of choice at some point – believing that we really, really want something badly only to find that we quickly become bored or uninterested in the very thing we desired so much.  Maxmisers will have a wardrobe full of shoes and bags they thought they wanted only to find that once obtained ‘that small object of desire’ is no longer desirable.

So, do you recognise yourself as a maximiser or a satisfier?  If you are a maximiser than try the following:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others, don’t hanker after what other people have, ditch your perfectionist thinking and accept that ‘good enough’ is ‘good enough.’
  • Have high expectations by all means but make sure your expectations are realistic and well within your capabilities – it’s good to enjoy a challenge but whatever you want and whatever you need must be within your grasp.
  • Celebrate what you have, be grateful for the small things in life, take your time and appreciate what you have.
  • Don’t overly concern yourself with the choices on offer – make a decision and stick to it.

Now, I have a choice to make.  Do I write another blog post or switch off my laptop and do something different.  Whatever choice I make I’m sure it will the right one.

All the best and enjoy the choices you make.

James

 

References

Iyengar, S.S., & Lepper, M.R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality Social Psychology, 79 (6), 995 – 1006.

Schwartz, B., & Ward, A. (2004).  Doing better but feeling worse: The paradox of choice. In P.A. Linley & S. Joseph (eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley and Sons, pp. 86 – 104.

Schwartz, B. (2005). The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More. New York: Harper Perrenial.

Style, C. (2011). Change Your Life with Positive Psychology.  Harlow: Pearson Education.

 

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