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The Burden of Choice

Why choices wreak havoc with happiness.

The quest for infinite choice is one of the hallmarks of human experience. Studies show that providing choices fosters self-determination and happiness. However, over the past 10 years, a body of research has emerged suggesting our evolutionary drive to maximize choice combined with the abundance of choices available to us is wreaking intrapsychic havoc on our well-being. This problem appears to be multi-layered. First, we are constantly bombarded with options and choices we believe will make us happier at every turn, and then after we make a decision, we are told that better choices exist.

Alvin Toffler predicted the damaging effects of this overload of choices nearly 40 years ago in his seminal book, Future Shock. He wrote, "Ironically, the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralyzing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be the victims of that peculiar super-industrial dilemma: ‘Overchoice.'" In an experiment examining the effects of choice on happiness, Iyengar and Lepper randomized individuals to either a group in which they could choose from 30 types of chocolate or a group in which they could choose from six types of chocolate. While subjects initially reported liking having the choice of 30 chocolates, they ended up being more dissatisfied and regretful of the choices they made than those who only had the choice of six. Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, elaborates on this phenomenon, emphasizing that regret avoidance and anticipated regret are some of the most detrimental effects of overchoice. He states, "the more options there are, the more likely one will make a non-optimal choice, and this prospect undermines whatever pleasure one may get from one's actual choice."

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These findings are quite sobering when we consider that nobody was trying to "sell" the participants on the available choices. There were no advertisers or marketers telling them one type of chocolate was better than the other, yet they still felt paralyzed by the number of choices and more regretful of their choices. This begs the question: What would happen if we added a condition to this study in which subjects were bombarded with advertisements and beautiful people telling them how great each of the choices were and that they would be happier if they chose "the best" chocolate option? This hypothetical condition isn't far from what most of us experience daily; it's this added onslaught of influence and pressure that most closely resembles the environment we live in every day. This environment of overchoice translates into the utilization of a skewed decisional balance in which we evaluate what we actually have in comparison to what we should have. We are left perpetually wondering: "What did I miss?" "Would I be happier if I had chosen a different option?" Each time we question our happiness, feel a sense of emptiness, or find fault in a choice we have made, we are made aware that other choices exist and believe that these "alternatives" may offer a solution to our existential quandaries.

Sadly, most of us do not have the resources to make use of these choices. Imagine for a minute that we change the chocolate experiment to compare the happiness of individuals who see all 30 chocolates but only have six lesser quality choices with those who have the option of all 30? What if there is another condition in which the group with the choice of six lesser quality chocolates also, after choosing from the six, has to sit in the room and watch the people in the 30 choice group eat their better chocolates. Finally, let's also add a feature to the study in which we inform the people in the 30 choice group that because they have greater choices they should be happier, and if they are not, they are doing something wrong. What would the study reveal? Would fewer available choices in the face of unattainable options make the limited choice group worse off? Would knowing that better options were available counteract the downside to having too many options? Or would this group still be plagued by a constant search for the best option out of the 30?

We strive for alternatives to maximize our happiness. However, the options offered to us through mass media and contemporary marketing practices have forever changed this evolutionary mechanism. The next wave of evolution may be an enhancement of our present day overchoice filter. This filter may be especially attuned to the onslaught of useless options that mimic our innate survival needs yet provide no long-term solutions. The wondrous thing about evolution is that if something begins to threaten our survival we adapt and change in response to it. It appears it is time for us to adapt and change. It is time to restore gratitude for and contentment with what we already have. Ironically, it may be our ability to choose our state of mind which can set us free from the burden of overchoice.

Frederick Muench, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

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