A personal investigation into the psychology of choice in the age of endless options and always-on living.
By Tara Bouley
I pose the question because I’m worried. About myself. About the rest of us. About these kids growing up in the ubiquity of option. While the prevailing assumption is that options are good, I am starting to question this wisdom because it genuinely feels like the act of deciding is ruining my life. Even with low-stakes decisions, I feel viscerally bound to weigh every possible outcome to ensure that I’m making the best choice. Sounds responsible, right? Maybe. But it also feels like I’m trapped by my own compulsion to not fuck up or miss out on something. And I know I’m not alone.
So I set out to investigate the omnipresent question lodged in the background of my consciousness: in this modern life, devoid of downtime and filled with endless options, how is all this choice affecting our well being and is there a path forward?
(And before I continue, I want to acknowledge you for making this choice, to read this article, given the hundreds, maybe thousands, of articles published on Medium daily. Thank you and please read on.)
Real Simple My Ass
What’s for dinner? I couldn’t think of a more universal place to start thinking about how increased choice has transformed some of life’s most elemental activities. It’s the age-old query we can all relate to, yet how we arrive at this decision has changed drastically over the years.
At one time in the not-so-distant past, say pre-1970s, it didn’t involve much deliberation at all. It was limited by availability, locality, seasonality, culture, tradition and whichever index cards you had in your recipe box. A finite set of variables.
Today, dinner can be just about anything — any cuisine you want or ingredient you need — only limited by your imagination.
First, you have to decide on a personal food philosophy. Are you going vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, macrobiotic, pescatarian, etc? Then the search for a recipe is on. You can look on Pinterest, Google, YouTube, blogs, apps (or even books if you’ve got an itch for analog). Finally, you have to decide where to source the groceries. If you’re in a major metropolis, you’re set. You can have a digital sous chef, Blue Apron or Plated, send you pre-prepped meal fixings based on your personal diet preferences. You can get Fresh Direct or Amazon Fresh to deliver groceries to your door. You can go to the organic grocery store or the conventional grocery store or the farmer’s market or the corner deli. You can join a CSA and get your groceries all season long from the same farmer. Don’t feel like cooking? You can just grab take out from the Thai, Indian, pizza, sushi or the elevated comfort food joint on you block. You can order delivery on your mobile from any local restaurant with Seamless or GrubHub. You can have the perfect dinner every day. It’s amazing, right?
So what’s the problem?
Well, my problem is the idea of the perfect dinner. It hangs over my head throughout the day. What’s easy isn’t healthy, what’s healthy isn’t easy, what’s healthy and easy is expensive. Plus, I need to go to the store. As I near home on my day’s commute, I walk past the stores from which I could be purchasing ingredients for said dinner. But I don’t. I never found the perfect, healthy, delicious recipe. Instead, I arrive home hungry, defeated and empty-handed. On those days, I end up skipping dinner or ordering pizza or eating snack food instead. These are very bad decisions that started with the healthiest of intentions.
But, but, but! More is always better, right? This assumption is so deeply ingrained in our culture, how can it be wrong? If our goal is to find the job, the partner, the jeans — the bloody dinner recipe — that perfectly suits who we are as a unique individuals, don’t we want all the options? Options give us freedom. Options give us…options. Because why would we settle for anything less than the perfect fit? Well, as it turns out, finding the perfect fit comes at a cost.
It costs us our happiness.
The Dark Side of Deciding
There’s a term for people who feel the need to carefully weigh their decisions. In the Scientific American article The Tyranny of Choice, Barry Schwartz, the undisputed authority on the psychology of choice, identified two types of deciders — the maximizer and satisficer. The maximizer tries to consider and carefully weigh all options in order to make the best possible choice. The satisficer ends their search when they find something that will suit their needs.
Naturally, no one can check out every option, but maximizers strive toward that goal, and so making a decision becomes increasingly daunting as the number of choices rises. Worse, after making a selection, they are nagged by the alternatives they have not had time to investigate. In the end, they are more likely to make better objective choices than the satificers but get less satisfaction from them.
Less satisfaction from better choices?! I always assumed that weighing all the options meant I was informed. Diligent. Responsible. But as I reviewed the list of maximizer qualities, I realized I didn’t have an edge, I had an affliction. This article finally explained why, after finally making a
“good” decision, I didn’t feel the least bit triumphant. Shouldn’t I be proud of my research and deliberation? And why did I have this nagging feeling that maybe I hadn’t made the best choice? Were there options I missed?
Frozen Ain’t Free
Yet even for maximizers, there is such thing as too many options. It’s called choice paralysis. It happens when, like in my dinner example, you end up with so many choices you basically short circuit and take the mental trap door before you actually decide.
Schwartz wrote a book on the subject of choice paralysis called The Paradox of Choice. In it, he explains why too much of a good thing has proven detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. He talked about it in a popular TED talk wearing, hands down, the most casual and fatherly outfits the TED stage has ever seen — bifocals, a faded and oversized T-shirt, cargo shorts, white tube socks and running shoes. Anyway, in this talk, he mentioned one study that was able to quantify exactly how much choice is too much:
A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard, the gigantic mutual fund company of about a million employees and about 2,000 different workplaces. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds — 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow.
This study shows that as you increase options, you actually decrease choosing. When people are faced with too much choice, they become paralyzed and they opt out of decisions altogether.
Kill Your Ego
I didn’t necessarily feel better about the dinner dilemma, but at least things were starting to become clear. There was an explanation for what was happening in my brain. First, trying to maximize your choice makes you feel less satisfied. Second, we see a paralysis effect in too much choice. That explained so much about my life. But still, I felt like there was a missing puzzle piece. I wanted to know why I felt so crappy after making decisions. It’s more than lackluster satisfaction. Sometimes deciding makes me feel like total shit. What is that?
As it turns out, researchers have recently begun to study this emotional effect. It’s called ego depletion and it happens when we are faced with too many decisions in a given span of time. They’ve found (despite what life coaches tell you) that willpower is not a matter of skill or desire, it is a finite resource that can be depleted bit by bit as we make decisions throughout the day. When we’ve used it all up, we can become passive, impulsive and defeated. It’s like a phone battery. You use it too much, you have to go home and charge it. The phone needs a break and so do our brains.
And the choices keep coming. Modern life is increasingly rife with what some call micro decisions. Every time you resist your desire to check email, social networks, eat a cookie, touch your phone, etc; you’re draining your executive functioning resources. Did you know, the average person checks their phone 150 times a day? And if you also have a job that requires you to make a lot of important decisions, you may find yourself at the end of the day reordering a favorite dish from Seamless and binge watching Netflix. It’s not because you’re a loser or lazy, it’s because your brain doesn’t have any deciding juice left to think critically. And no amount of scientific exposition can stop it. Yet we all still feel like shit for watching TV instead of working out and cooking a healthy dinner. (Darn you, healthy dinner!)
Design Your Life
Ego depletion is a relatively new term, coined by social psychologist Roy Baumeister in 2007, but for quite long time now, a few wise people have been wise to its effects — like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs — and have taken steps to combat it in their own lives.
Jobs was well known for limiting most decisions outside of the business world and wore the same thing every single day. And some people, most notably Tim Ferriss of the “4-Hour” series of books and his “lifestyle design,” have made a business out of reducing choice. But for me personally, these approaches seem kind of extreme and potentially alienating. Not that I’m killing it in my lifestyle design, but I’ve noticed when I’ve known someone to make a significant lifestyle change, so often it isn’t a quiet shift, it’s a proselytizing-on-social-media event. Suddenly, friends transform into authorities. Fitness gurus. Sustainability scions. You know what I mean.
Listen, I get it. People are passionate about changing their life and want to shout it from the rooftops. I think the world absolutely needs the Steve Jobs and Albert Einsteins and life coaches. But I am looking at myself and thinking, I don’t want that for me. As Amy Poehler says about championing other’s choices and successes in her book YES PLEASE, “Good for them, not for me.” That said, I do want to be more satisfied and less fraught by choices. But is there a way to limit my options in this world of infinite choice without resorting to extremes? Can I still be a generalist of life and survive the deluge?
Is the Poison the Cure?
The biggest change in modern life is the elephant in our hands, on our desks, and in our living rooms. Technology. Maybe it’s all technology’s fault. Perhaps the immediacy of technology has caused us to be slaves to our impulsive behaviors, like those bees in Red Hook who shunned their genetic imperative for nectar gathering from flowers in favor of mainlining sugar from a maraschino cherry plant. Why is it that so many of us now fantasize about going off the grid, living in our tiny homes and campers, eating from one bowl, growing our own food? I wonder if, in our secret hearts of hearts even secret to us, it’s more about stemming the tide of choice than it is about living a more environmentally sustainable life.
I’d like to think we don’t have to run off to the woods to simplify. Lately, I’ve been noticing an influx of apps and services that are squarely focused on eliminating micro decisions that, taken in toto, can be so psychologically destructive. Maybe technology can offer a silver lining to this glut of options?
So, what do you need simplified? There’s probably an app for that. There’s If This Then That, which allows you to automate tasks between apps and products with custom “recipes” like “If I take a photo in Instagram, back it up in Dropbox” or “When I leave home, turn off my wifi.” There’s Amazon Dash, where, quite literally, all you have to do to place an order is press a button. There’s Blue Apron, where you get all the ingredients for cooking a dinner that’s tailored to your tastes delivered to your door. There’s Magic, an SMS-based service that will basically do anything (legal) you can think of with just a text, like bring your wife flowers or pick up some groceries. There’s Instacart that will shop for groceries from your favorite store and deliver them to you within an hour. There’s Shyp, a service that picks up, packs, and ships any item using the cheapest shipping option.
Technology’s role in all this isn’t so cut and dry, right? Yes, it’s guilty of bringing every choice to your fingertips, but it can also streamline tasks and decision making. But again, it does require us to think about how we’re using it to make it work for us.
Spoiler alert. I’m not going to come in here and give you the magic bullet. I’m hardly qualified to give advice of any kind. I simply wanted to research the topic to see if I could garner some wisdom along the way. And I wrote this article in the hopes to that if I could learn something that could apply to my life, maybe something in there was helpful for you too.
So what’s the capital “A” answer? Do we fix society? Doubt it. Do we fix ourselves? Maybe. Do we need to fix anything at all? I do, but maybe you don’t. Let’s go back to the experts and see what they say the answer is, starting with Barry Schwartz:
Because the truth of the matter is that if you shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, you don’t have freedom. You have paralysis. If you shatter this fishbowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction. Everybody needs a fishbowl. This one is almost certainly too limited — perhaps even for the fish, certainly for us. But the absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery, and, I suspect, disaster.
Nowadays, the world we live in — we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation — the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness — this is what you all came for — the secret to happiness is low expectations.
And of course, the man with the answer to a more productive life, Tim Ferriss, has actual rules about living a “choice minimal” lifestyle:
1. Set rules for yourself so you can automate as much decision-making as possible.
2. Don’t provoke deliberation before you can take action.
3. Don’t postpone decisions or open “loops,” to use GTD parlance, just to avoid uncomfortable conversations.
4. Learn to make non-fatal or reversible decisions as quickly as possible.
5. Don’t strive for variation — and thus increase option consideration — when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.
6. Regret is past-tense decision making. Eliminate complaining to minimize regret
Okay, Barry and Tim. Easier said than done, but okay.
Now that we’ve looked at it through the lens of psychology, what do philosophers think? Alan Watts, the British philosopher famous for translating eastern philosophy for a western audience, had this to say about choosing and deciding:
It is the act of hesitation that comes before making a decision. It is a mental wobbling, much like when some people take up a pen to write but don’t just start writing; they jiggle the pen around indecisively for a while and then start. When a person comes into a room and hesitates and wonders who to talk to, in that moment he is choosing. Whereas when a person comes into a room and goes up to someone without waiting to choose, we say he is decisive. But that is a funny thing to say, because it really means that he hadn’t stopped to decide.
Krishnamurti spoke a great deal about being “choicelessly aware.”
He said, “Freedom is precisely the state of not having to choose.”
Now, that sounds quite paradoxical, because we are always talking about freedom of choice. But choice, in this sense of the word, is not a form of freedom.
Freedom is precisely the state of not having to choose? That’s, quite literally, the opposite of how we typically view choice. But if you think about it, it makes sense. People report that they are most happy in “flow” or “in the zone” — the time when you’re so immersed in a task or activity that your decisions don’t require deliberation. When you’re acting upon pure instinct.
If we cobble together the outlooks of Tim Ferriss and Barry Schwartz and Steve Jobs and Alan Watts, themes do seem to emerge— though they might seem counterintuitive to the sentient, sensitive, thinking adult. Think less. Expect less. Act more. Don’t hesitate. Embrace routine.
It’s A Wrap!
My exploration into choice was totally worth it — in the sense that I feel far less overwhelmed and confused by decision making. But it has also left me with even more questions. Is it possible to have a balanced life in the modern day? Do we have to go off the grid, plant our own food, build our tiny homes and eschew all screens? Or do we stay in society and take the Jobs and Ferriss route and embrace sameness in some areas so that we can free up brain juice for creativity in other areas? How, exactly, do you think less and do more? Is there a way to leave the torment behind without resorting to extremes? Is technology the problem and the answer? And finally, is there a way to be happy without having to engineer it?
Or is it not about the quantity of options at all, but how we think about them? In my case, I think part of that shitty feeling came from how I was deciding. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about how there are two modes of thinking, System 1 is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious and System 2 is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious. The problem is most people think they are operating on system 2 when they’re really operating on system 1, they’re being reactionary when they think they’re being logical. This was my problem with dinner. Even though I thought I was making an informed decision, I was really just churning in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. What I needed to do was sit down, really sit down, with my system 2 hat on and think about it.
So, what happened? I solved my dinner crisis in one Sunday afternoon.
I recently became a mom and now I’m responsible for more humans than just myself. What I had been doing when I was single wasn’t working for my family. Babies can’t eat dinner at 9 PM after a trip to the store every night and cooking from scratch without any consideration for prep time. I had the love part of parenting down but in many, many ways, I hadn’t adapted to this new life. That was my problem, not what’s for dinner on Tuesday.
It wasn’t so difficult, as it turns out. I made 4 weeks of meal plans to start that I could rotate through. I printed each week’s plan out and tacked it up in my kitchen. It included a shopping list on the edge of the page that I would cut off and highlight ingredients I needed to buy. I ordered or shopped for the entire week’s groceries in one fell swoop. I also sous-chef’d all ingredients for each meal so that when I got home during the week, I really just had to cook up the pre-prepped items. This cut at least 30 minutes from each night’s cook time. A few hours every Sunday and my week went from being stressful and overwhelming to doable. Sustainable.
So now, instead of being faced with an important decision late in the day when I have no more deciding fuel left and getting stressed out about it and thinking about all the options in some whirlpool of panic, I make those choices when I’m refreshed and ready. And better yet, I gave myself tools to make deciding simpler. Building blocks. Guardrails.
I built myself a fishbowl. Goddamn you, Barry Schwartz.