When too much of a good thing is bad.
Posted January 22, 2018
The ability to make your own choices offers a certain amount of freedom and is often seen as beneficial. On a day-to-day basis, we make many decisions, ranging from what we want to eat for breakfast to larger, more important ones, such as who we want to affiliate with and what type of person we want to be.
Choice provides us with freedom and autonomy, but having options is not always positive. Schwartz and Ward (2004) note that having too much choice may actually lead to undesirable outcomes. Specifically, they observe that “…as the number of choices people face keeps increasing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until, ultimately, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates."
The Problem With Choice
A famous study by Iyengar and Lepper (2000) demonstrates just how debilitating choice can be. In their study, people were exposed to jam displays in a gourmet supermarket. One display had six types of jams, and the other had 24 varieties. A greater number of people were attracted to the display with more choice. But in terms of purchases, 30 percent of people exposed to the small display bought jam, compared to 3 percent of those exposed to the large display. Having too many jams to choose from actually demotivated people from making a purchase. Too much of a good thing is not necessarily good.
The “paradox of choice” is used to illustrate that having too much choice makes it more difficult to come to a final decision. Schwartz and Ward (2004) note that, "for certain individuals, adding more choices to an existing domain simply makes choice more difficult, as they feel pressure to choose the ‘best’ possible option from an overwhelming array of choices rather than simply settle for ‘good enough.'"
Choice and Relationships
How does this relate to relationships? Wouldn’t more choice simply allow us to be more discerning when it comes to selecting a partner? In fact, we may focus on different aspects of potential mates, based on the amount of choice we have.
Research by Lenton and Francesconi (2010) examined 1,868 female and 1,870 male speed daters. Their goal was to determine if people adopt different strategies when selecting mates based on the number of potential mates they had to choose from. In this study, participants went on three-minute mini-dates and were then presented with online profiles, which included information on their partners’ age, weight, height, educational attainment, religion, occupation, and smoking status. These profiles were provided to them 24 hours after the mini-dates. Speed-dating events were considered "small" when participants met between 15 and 23 partners, and classified as "large" when they had between 24 and 31 potential partners to choose from.
The results demonstrated that when participants were given more choice in larger speed-dating sessions, they spent less time focusing on mate characteristics which take time to evaluate (i.e., occupation and education). Instead, the daters with more choice focused on characteristics that were easier to assess (i.e., height and weight). Therefore, in this case, too much choice made the daters less discerning of the important characteristics of potential partners.
Online dating sites offer hundreds of profiles to choose from, and swipe-based sites provide an abundance of easily-accessible pictures. With all of these choices at our fingertips, we may be paying less attention to important characteristics, and instead focusing on easy-to-assess visual cues. In addition, the plethora of profiles may make it more difficult to narrow down our dating pool and select a partner to go out with.
Use caution when swiping or scrolling through profiles, and be sure to focus on the sections that highlight those characteristics that are most important to you. Assess your date’s true potential, and try not to get caught up in the process, leaving yourself unable to make a decision.
Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995–1006.
Lenton, A. P., & Francesconi, M. (2010). How humans cognitively manage an abundance of mate options. Psychological Science, 21, 528-533. doi: 10.1177/0956797610364958
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 (86-104). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.