Choking on Choice?

How to be satisfied with your decisions. When people find themselves overwhelmed when it comes to choosing an ultimate career goal.

By Kirsten Vala, published April 21, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In America, people are faced with more and more decisions every day, whether it's picking one of 31 ice cream flavors or deciding whether and when to get married. That sounds like a great thing. But as research from a Swarthmore College psychology professor has shown, too many choices can make us confused, unhappy—even paralyzed with indecision.

That's particularly true when it comes to the workplace, says Barry Schwartz, an author of six books about human behavior. Students are graduating with a multitude of skills and interests, but often find themselves overwhelmed when it comes to choosing an ultimate career goal.

In a study, Schwartz observed decision-making among college students during their senior year. Based on answers to questions regarding their job-hunting strategies and career decisions, he divided the students into two groups: "maximizers" who consider every possible option, and "satisficers" who look until they find an option that is good enough.

You might expect that the students who'd undertaken the most exhaustive search would be the most satisfied with their final decision. But it turns out that's not true. Schwartz found that while maximizers ended up with better paying jobs than satisficers on average, they weren't as happy with their decision.

Why do these people feel less satisfied? Maybe because a world of possibilities is also a world of missed opportunities. When you look at every possible option you tend to fixate more on what was given up than what was gained. After surveying every option, a person is more acutely aware of the "opportunity cost" of their decision, or all the opportunities they had to turn down to pursue just one career.

So is it better to be a happy satisficer or a successful maximizer?

Some people may not be just one or the other; they may change their decision-making style to fit different situations. Columbia University business professor Sheena Iyengar, the study's co-author, thinks maximizing is only a problem if it's a full-time strategy. "People have to pick and choose what domains they're going to maximize on," she says. "There may be people out there who try to maximize on everything and, in the process, end up making decisions that don't satisfy what they're looking for." These people will, literally, never be satisfied.

In Schwartz's view, it's better to settle for "good enough" most of the time. Lower expectations and fewer regrets will make people who settle happier. He believes considering every option is almost never necessary, and should be reserved for the most important life decisions. Ultimately, it's more important to maximize happiness than options.