Post No.: 0170
Being presented with any choice, on the face of it, should always be at least no worse than being presented no choice at all, when the ‘you have no choice’ ‘option’ is one of the options in the ‘you have a choice’ set – but offering people less choice doesn’t always lead to less happiness.
Too much choice or complexity of choice can produce choice paralysis or ‘paralysis by analysis’ if taking one option mutually excludes the possibility of taking another option (i.e. situations where it’s ‘this or that’ rather than ‘this and possibly that too’). More choice or variety will attract more people than less choice or variety, but if that choice is complex, disorganised and unmanageable for buyers to fully and confidently comprehend then less people will actually commit to a purchase than if there were fewer options. Simplifying the options therefore often counterintuitively improves sales (e.g. the choice between a 256GB, 512GB or 1,024GB phone with one particular operating system, and that’s it).
When given a choice, we can also feel ‘buyer’s remorse’, where we start to wonder if we’ve made the right choice, and these thoughts are amplified if the alternatives were numerous and closely similar, thus we may fail to make the absolute best choice we could’ve made with the benefit of hindsight, or end up not making a choice at all for the fear of remorse. When faced with a choice between two similar things, you must also consider the consequences of not deciding or not deciding soon enough, and therefore missing opportunities, and this causes stress. The ‘paradox of choice’ is when more choice can perversely introduce more anxiety for shoppers (e.g. choosing a chilli sauce amongst a hundred options on the shelves).
In most, if arguably not all, situations, we should ideally be less like ‘maximizers’ (who always wait for the best option or are perfectionists) and be more like ‘satisficers’ (who are content with the excellent enough or what’s sufficient rather than the absolute best). We cannot always accurately predict in the real world what will be the absolute best choice for us so we should not miss the opportunity to have enough to make us happy. A pre-prepared shopping list or specification list will help limit one’s choices and help prevent buying too much or too little or buying the wrong things when one walks into a shop or browses online.
Most people won’t complain about having a biscuit with their cup of tea, but if they were suddenly told they actually had a choice to have some chocolate cake instead of the biscuit, they might suddenly feel unhappy about ‘only’ having that biscuit! Choices can therefore introduce regret. Instead of thinking of what we have, we’ll start to think of what we could’ve had (even just hypothetically), and feelings of gratefulness also decrease as a result.
Also, offer people an inch, and they’ll sometimes later wonder if they can get a mile, thus complete furry contentment is harder to attain when knowing that there’s more one could potentially get, especially if it seems just within reach. Whereas when we have no choice whatsoever, we often adapt to make the most of what we’ve got and simply get on with life. In the past, children weren’t unhappy that they didn’t have smartphones (and if people were/are happy then they were/are happy), but a child of today will probably be unhappy with a wooden toy when they see that a smartphone is an alternative option! Therefore, psychologically, not knowing any better has its benefits, and not blabbing about what another person ‘could’ve had instead’ can keep them blissfully unawares.
Another example is that the vast majority of people in the UK weren’t bothered or resentful about being in the EU until a referendum option to leave was offered. It wasn’t even a top ten trending problem on their minds – it wasn’t on most people’s minds at all. If it was then it was primarily about regulations that concern the straightness of bananas(!) And if people weren’t really complaining about having something before the possibility of having something else then they were technically feeling satisfied about having that something – just like if people were happy with their prizes before the gamble was offered to ‘swap it with what’s inside the mystery box’ then people should really stick with their original prize and not gamble away that happiness.
But by simply offering another option that wasn’t originally on the table, some people will become curious about what might happen if they choose the ‘mystery box’ instead, once that seed of possibility has been sown in their minds. And some people will have the irrational optimism of a gambler who will risk giving up feeling satisfied about having something for the chance of having something else that might be better, but of course might actually be worse. (People can start to post-rationalise that they weren’t actually fine with something they had though, or displace all their grievances onto the thing that is now considered for change, only to find that it won’t actually solve all of their original problems at all (e.g. a change of football manager doesn’t always work out for the better). But the goalposts will move if so (as in the selected measure or timescale for success rather than the literal goalposts on the football pitch!))
When we watch a TV programme live, we don’t have the choice to skip sections or speed it up so we just sit down and enjoy it. When we watch a streamed programme on the other hand, we can do these things hence these possible options can occupy part of our attentional resources as we constantly assess whether we’re happy with what we’re watching, and this can take away from our sense of being immersed in the moment. So when we experience something we cannot change, we’re more likely to accept it and just go with the flow. Hence the freedom to choose amongst options isn’t always what will afford us the greatest happiness.
We can feel less satisfaction if something is revocable compared to if it is irrevocable (e.g. being able to return something for any reason whatsoever compared to having a ‘no returns policy’ except for errors made by the seller) because we consider the pros and cons if something can be changed, whilst we only tend to focus on the pros if something cannot be changed. So only offer a small range of choice to others, if any choice at all, and have conviction and commitment to the choices you make yourself.
This is all obviously not to say that having or offering choices is always bad – choices can improve our sense of autonomy and open up opportunities we thought we never had in ways that progress society and us as individuals. In most cases it’s a good thing. It’s just to say that it isn’t over-simplistically always good for our well-being, and the intuition that ‘the more choice, the better’ is not always empirically correct.