How having choices makes us unhappy (and how to make them work for you) cover image

How having choices makes us unhappy (and how to make them work for you)

Dorian Minors • May 27, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Our brain cuts corners. It's nothing but an overgrown shortcut maker. The wise ruler, Paul Atreides once said that the easy (safe, clear) path leads ever down into stagnation. So it's a wonder that our brains aren't completely useless by now when almost everything is does is an attempt to automate our mental processing, not to mention all the problems it causes for us. Today, I want to talk about one. One that may just be the most challenging cognitive burden we have in today's society. The problem of choice (and how to fix it).

'Choosing' isn't always problem

If it seems odd to you that choice is a problem, you could be forgiven because almost sixty years ago we found something that made us think our brains had the stress of choosing between things sorted. In 1956, Jack Brehm found evidence for what he called the free-choice paradigm. The main idea is that when we choose between two things, our brain instantly rationalises the choice we made and makes us like the other choice less. It's something we talk about in more detail here (and it's why you're not as happy as you could be). This is because, when we have two choices, we will like and dislike things about each of them. When we choose one, our brain gets a little confused because we found aspects of the other appealing. This is a kind of whats known as cognitive dissonance (mental stress caused by contradicting thoughts). Our brain hates cognitive dissonance. So it crushes it wherever it finds it. In this case, by kindly reducing the appeal of the other choice. Now there has been criticism of the idea, but it seems to hold up to scrutiny and seems to be a rather basic element of mental processing because recently we found the same thing happening in monkeys.

But choice also causes us to suffer

'Oh god, there are so many pants. SO MANY PANTS!' 'Oh god, there are so many pants. SO MANY PANTS!'

Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published two famous studies in 2000, known as the chocolate study and the jam study which highlights one of the key problems with Brehm's findings. In the chocolate study, they found that with less chocolates to choose from, people were more satisfied with their choice. The jam study is perhaps more illuminating. A store set up a large array of jams for tasting and a small array. More people came to the large array to taste the jams, but only three percent of them bought one. Less people came to the smaller array, and yet 30% bought one. The key issue with the free-choice paradigm is that although we are attracted to choice (one might argue that it's intrinsic to our societal values), when we have more than two, we don't always deal with the dissonance as well. In 2004, Barry Schwartz published his book 'the paradox of choice' and popularised this idea in his subsequent TED talk. Schwartz tells us that the more choices we have, the more unhappy we become with the choice we made. This may be because the sheer amount of cognitive dissonance created by the number of choices we have overwhelms our brain's ability to handle it. He calls it the 'tyranny of choice'. In Ivengar and Lepper's article, they quote the French political historian Alexis de Tocqueville:

In America I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures

Schwartz says that in our attempts to choose, we seek perfection and so consider all the possible trade-offs we make when choosing one item over others, and it is in the consideration of the negative aspects that we overwhelm our brain's ability to focus on the positive aspects.

It's not always true though

Makes you wonder if rich people have a hard time choosing which boat to sail through the Riviera Makes you wonder if rich people have a hard time choosing which boat to sail through the Riviera

In 2010, Benjamin Scheibehenne and his colleagues conducted a large meta-analysis (a kind of review of lots of studies) that showed this effect to be 'virtually zero' although there was a lot of variation between them. What they're suggesting is that some choices have the potential to mess us up and some don't. They key, of course, is to figure out what those are. In the book "Freakonomics", they highlight studies like this that talk about the fact that when confronted with a massive list of available 401K programs (for us Aussies, that's Superannuation essentially) people won't choose any. When automatically signed up, people just go along with it. The key in decisions like these, they suggest, is the issue of complexity of the choice. It may very well be the case that when confronted with very complex and important decisions, when the stakes are higher or the choices are harder, then more choices makes us feel worse about the outcome. When things are less complicated, our brains are still capable of handling the cognitive load. So perhaps it's not as the ancient Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer (or Terence) said 'Ne quid nimis' (In all things, moderation). Perhaps it's as Ralph Waldo Emerson (or Oscar Wilde) said, 'In all things moderation, especially moderation'. Want to know more about your brain's lazy attempts to simplify things and how that's screwing things up for you? Learn about how your brain makes 'rules' and how that might explain why so many of your arguments! Or learn five common ways of thinking our brains take for granted and why they spell relationship trouble. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.