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Why Having Choices Makes Us Feel Powerful

We think that choice = control = survival: We need to feel in control.

When my two children were young, we used to have cleanup time on the weekends. Rather than assigning them household tasks to do, I made a list of all the possible chores that day, and awarded each task a number of points. The longer, more difficult, or undesirable tasks were given more points than the shorter, easier tasks.

I would then tell them how many points they had to achieve in tasks that day, and they could choose which ones to do. I can’t say that they loved cleaning the house, but if I used the point system they were much more motivated than if I just assigned them chores. They felt they had some control over their work. They had choices to make. 

You might think that if you just tell people the best way to do something they’d be glad to have the choice made for them. But we don’t necessarily want to do things the easy way. Given an easy way to accomplish a task, versus a way that just makes our life more difficult, why do we sometimes (often?) choose the way that is complicated? 

It’s because we love having control.

Rats, monkeys, pigeons & people — In her book, The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar describes research with rats, monkeys, pigeons, and people: 

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  • Rats were given a choice of a direct path to food or a path that had branches and therefore required choices to be made. Both paths resulted in access to the same food in the same amounts. If all the rats wanted was food, then they should take the short, direct path. But the rats continuously preferred the path with branches.
  • In experiments with monkeys and pigeons, the animals learn to press buttons to get food. If given a choice between one button and multiple buttons, both monkeys and pigeons prefer multiple buttons. 
  • In similar research with humans, people were given chips to use at a casino. They could use the chips at a table that had one roulette wheel, or at a table where they could choose from two roulette wheels. People preferred the table with two wheels, even though all the wheels were identical. 

Choices = control = survival — Even though it’s not necessarily true, we equate having choices with having control. Our survival instincts tell us that we'll survive if we have control. So it's our powerful unconscious that keeps us seeking control, and it's the desire for control that keeps us seeking choices. 

We like having choices because it makes us feel in control. We won’t always choose the fastest way to get something done. We want to feel that we are powerful and that we have choices.If you want people to do stuff, give them options. 

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.,is a behavioral psychologist, author, coach, and consultant in neuropsychology.

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