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Posts tagged ‘paradox of choice’

Getting Mired In Trivial Choices: Why More Options Doesn’t Mean More Important

By now, our tendency to not decide optimally is well documented. When it comes to buying toothpaste or a new pair of jeans social science research has spoken: we’re not only irrational – we’re predictably irrational. What’s more is the fact that too much choice is actually harmful to our well-being. When there is an option for everything, we suffer.

Psychologists term this the paradox of choice, and it describes how we become less satisfied the more choices there are. Think about shopping for jeans. The more there are the more you expect to find a perfect fit. At the same time, it’s less likely that you pick correctly the larger the array. You walk out of the store less confident in your choice while worrying about the pairs that might have been better.

What’s interesting about the paradox of choice is that it doesn’t discriminate much. We struggle with important decisions like buying a new home, finding the right wife or husband, or picking health care plans. This is understandable. But the little things give us stress as well. Finding the perfect toothpaste can’t be that important, can it? The brain, in other words, doesn’t do a good job of realizing what’s at stake when we decide.

This poses a peculiar predicament for psychologists: why do our brains get so caught up in unimportant decisions? This brings me to a new paper (to be published in August) by Aner Sela and Jonah Berger. They ask: “Why do people get mired in seemingly trivial decisions? Why do we agonize over what toothbrush to buy, struggle with what sandwich to pick, and labor over which shade of white to paint the kitchen?”

Sela and Berger use the term “decision quicksand” to describe how we get sucked into unimportant decisions. Their key insight is that the brain conflates excess information with importance. This means that the more options there are, the more time and attention we give, even if we are just picking trivial items. Here are the scientists:

If people form inferences about decision importance from their own decision efforts, then not only might increased perceived importance lead people to spend more time deciding, but increased decision time might, in turn, validate and amplify these perceptions of importance, which might further increase deliberation time. Thus, one could imagine a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty, and perceived importance. Inferences from difficulty may not only impact immediate deliberation, but may kick off a quicksand cycle that leads people to spend more and more time on a decision that initially seemed rather unimportant. Quicksand sucks people in, but the worse it seems the more people struggle.

To demonstrate their point, Sela and Berger conducted a series of clever experiments. In one, they gave participants a selection of airline options. The scientists created two groups: the participants in the high-difficult condition were given the options in small, low contrast font; in the low-difficult condition, the participants were given the same options in a larger, high contrast font. The researchers found two things. The first, and less surprisingly discovery, was that participants in the high-difficulty condition spent more time deliberating the options. The more interesting finding is that this extra effort led to perceptions of increased importance. Moreover, the researchers found that this effect was pronounced when participants were told that the choice of flights was actually unimportant. In a world where there is an option for everything, it’s no wonder why we stress over the little things.

The good news is that many companies are beginning to recognize the implications of this cognitive misfiring. Several years ago Proctor & Gamble saw a 10 percent increase in sales when they reduced the number of Head and Shoulders variants from 26 to 15. They found similar results when they deployed the same strategies with Tide and Ivory soap. Likewise, The Golden Cat Corp. reported a 12 percent increase in sales when they eliminated 10 of its worst-selling kitty-litters. Even Wal-Mart is weighing in. Back in 2010 the retail giant dropped two of its five lines of peanut butter, which resulted in an increase in sales. “Folks can get overwhelmed with too much variety,” said Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising officer at Wal-Mart in Mississauga. “With too many choices, they actually don’t buy.”

These strategies couldn’t come soon enough. Over the last several years psychologists have documented the negative effects that come with choice overload. They use the term “Decision Fatigue” to describe this phenomenon. The problem is that deciding takes mental effort; it reduces willpower and encourages procrastination. When we are overwhelmed with choice we tend to be more irrational than normal. Here’s John Tierney, New York Times writer and co-author of Willpower with a brief synopsis of the idea:

There is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser.

How do we remedy this first world problem? When it comes to important decisions, it’s probably a good thing to stress a little bit. But when there isn’t much on the line – what toothpaste to buy for example – remember that the stress you experience is likely a cognitive illusion. With this in mind, try to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer; trying to be optimal is nearly impossible – settle for what suffices.


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Suffering From Decision Fatigue? The Downside of Abundance

Deciding used to be easy. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of mortgages, pick between dozens of toothpaste or decide between Pepsi, Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Twist. Deciding was simple for them, eat or perish, find shelter or suffer.

The agrarian and industrial revolutions changed this. Now, resources are plentiful and available, and the diversity of alternatives is hard not to notice. When it comes to living spaces, food, friends, and even potential marital partners, there is an option for just about anything. The problem is that too many options hinder our ability to choose rationally. Psychologists term this the paradox of choice, and it describes our tendency to be less satisfied the more options we are given. The often cited jam study, for example, demonstrated that people who picked from 24 or 30 different jams were less satisfied that people who picked from six.

The larger problem is when this occurs repeatedly. In an experiment by Jean Twenge, a postdoctoral in Roy Baumeister’s lab, participants were presented with table full of products that were “appealing to college students,” and told they would get to keep one at the end of the experiment. Twenge created two groups. The first “went through a series of choices… a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one? A candle or a T-shirt? A black T-shirt or a red T-Shit?” The second group “spent an equally long period of time contemplating all these same products without having to make any choices. They were asked just to rate their opinion of each product and report how often they had used such a product in the last six months.”

Afterward, Twenge tested their self-control by having them hold their hands in ice water for as long as they could. She found that the first group gave up much sooner than the second group. “Making all those choices,” Baumeister concludes in his recent book Willpower, “had apparently sapped their willpower, and the effect showed up again in other decision-making exercises.”

Baumeister, who has spent his career studying mental disciple, uses the term ego-depletion to suggest that brains have a finite amount of mental energy, and when it is spent, our ability to be rational diminishes. The co-author of Willpower, John Tierney, sums it up:

[Ego-Depletion] helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.

How can we overcome ego depletion? One obvious answer is to eat healthy, take breaks at work and get enough sleep. Also, make sure you have enough glucose in your system. Another study done by Baumeister demonstrated that participants who were given lemonade with glucose preformed better on a, “task in which they needed to overcome an intuitive response to get the correct answer” than participants who were given lemonade with Splenda. The right amount of glucose, it turned out, kept their brains fresh and sharp – more rational.

The bad news is that our brains, which were built for the African savannah and biologically identical to our ancestors who lived nearly 100,000 years ago, aren’t going to adapt anytime soon. Our genetics will get nudged one way or another over the millennia, but our prefrontal cortices will likely never be able to rationally handle the cognitive demands of a shopping mall. So for the dissatisfied Manhattanites of the world, it might be better to move – if possible – to an environment where there are not so many options, only enough to be happy and healthy. As William F. Buckley was known to have said, “if you have no alternatives, you have no problems.”

To Give or to Get: The Paradox of Choice and Prosocial Spending

In the early 1830s the French political historian Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States to study American society. What came out of his travels and research was Democracy in America, a two-volume giant that explored the democratic revolution and its implications to western society. One trend that Tocqueville observed and was particularly perplexed by was how dissatisfied Americans (white American men most likely) were with their lives even though they lived in one of the most privileged societies in the world. “In America,” Tocqueville explained, “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 pleasure. The chief reason for this is that… [they] never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.”

That was back in the 1830s, when Rockefeller and Carnegie were babies and the Mall of American was a corn field. (One can only imagine what he would have to say about 2011.) Aside from his social critique of consumerism, Tocqueville made a keen psychological observation, which has recently been confirmed by psychology data. It’s called the paradox of choice, and it describes our tendency to be less satisfied with our purchases the more options there are. Here’s one study that nicely illustrates this.

Researchers set up a jam tasting counter at a gourmet food store. There were two conditions. In the first 6 jams were available and in the second 24 were available. They found that even though the same amount of samples were tasted, 33 percent of customers bought a jam when only 6 varieties were offered for tasting while a mere 3 percent bought jams when 24 varieties were offered. The researchers followed up this experiment with one that replaced jam with chocolates and shoppers with undergrads. The key finding in the second experiment was that the participants who picked from more chocolates weren’t as satisfied as participants who picked from less chocolates. Jonathan Haidt summarizes the implications of both studies best: “the more choices there are, the more you expect to find a perfect fit; yet, at the same time, the larger the array, the less likely it becomes that you picked the best item. You leave the store less confident in your choice, more likely to feel regret, and more likely to think about the options you didn’t choose.”

To be sure, some choice is good. As Barry Schwartz explains, “freedom and autonomy are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy.” But too many choices make us worse off. “Nonetheless,” Schwartz continues,”though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

Is it possible to avoid the paradox of choice? In a society where there is an option for everything (my local drug store carries about 30 different brands of floss!) it seems impossible. But here’s one idea: spend your money on other people (what’s called prosocial spending) , it will make you happier.

Consider a study from a group of researchers out of the University of British Columbia. The experiment was straightforward. First, they gathered University of British Columbia undergrads and asked to evaluate how happy they were. Then they gave each of the undergrads an envelope of cash with either five or twenty dollars (Canadian dollars). The researchers created two groups: one was told to spend money only on other people and the other to spend money only on themselves. At the end of the day they called the volunteers and asked them what they had bought and how happy they were. They found that regardless of how much money they were given and what they bought, the prosocial spending folks were happier than those who spent the money on themselves.

There’s an important byproduct of prosocial spending: it alleviates the paradox of choice – it’s much harder to be dissatisfied with a purchase when giving is the satisfying part. But maybe this is backwards thinking. Tocqueville’s problem might be worsened if everyone only bought stuff for other people. Instead of everyone always thinking about what they don’t have, everyone might always think about what they haven’t received from someone else. Somewhere in the middle is probably best. Buy stuff for you and other people while keeping in mind that the cheesy, “it’s better to give than receive” cliché might contain a grain of truth.

The Psychology of Marriage: Choice or Arranged?

I love free samples. IKEA’s Swedish meatballs might be my favorite. They are delicious and put me in a furniture-buying mood. Sometimes, however, choosing between all those yummy samples is hard, and I’m not alone. In a study done several years ago researchers set up a jam tasting counter at a grocery store to see how sample size affects consumer behavior. There were two groups: one that chose between 24 or 30 different jams and the other that chose from six. Though our intuitions and economic theory perpetuate the idea that the more options we have the better we will be, researchers found just the opposite. The group given 24 or 30 options was less likely to purchase a jam and reported being less satisfied with their choices.

This is called the paradox of choice and it describes the tendency for people to be less content as they are presented with more options (that is not to say no options are best, just that more options are worse after a certain point). Jonathan Haidt summarizes perfectly:

The more choices there are, the more you expect to find a perfect fit; yet, at the same time, the larger the array, the less likely it becomes that you picked the best item. You leave the store less confident in your choice, more likely to feel regret, and more likely to think about the options you didn’t choose.

The question is: does the paradox of choice hold true for romantic relationships? That is, are more options harmful if we are seeking a romantic partner?

One way to test this theory is to compare arranged marriages, where the choices are minimal to none, to non-arranged marriages, where the choices are infinite (in theory at least). To the surprise of many westerns, arranged marriages report similar rates of satisfaction, love, and tend to be more robust.

For example, in 1982, psychologists Usha Gupta and Pushpa Singh of the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur ran a study comparing marriages of choice in the United States to arranged marriages in India. They found opposite trends: choice marriages experienced a lot of initial passion and little compassion thereafter while arranged marriages experienced no initial passion but increasing compassion as the years went on. Moreover, arranged marriage couples were nearly twice as compassionate than choice marriage couples ten years post marriage – a result reinforced in a recent paper by Robert Epstein and Mansi Thakar highlighted in the January/February 2011 edition of Scientific American.

Does this mean that arranged marriage is the way to go?

Not necessarily. A follow up study done by Jane Myers et al, in 2005 compared 45 individuals living in arranged marriages in India to individuals in choice marriages in the United States. They found “no support for differences in marital satisfaction or love aspects of wellness in relation to arranged marriages.” In addition, studies by Schwartz (2007, Orthodox Jews) and Walsh and Taylor (1982, Japanese) found no differences in love between arranged versus choice marriage. As such, Myers is correct to conclude that, “further research on the relationships between cultural differences, cultural values, and characteristics of marriages are needed to explain these relationships and provide a knowledge base for cross-cultural couples counseling.”

What psychologists do know is that people who are married are happier and healthier. In addition, data shows that the happiest people usually have strong marriages and that married people tend to live on average longer – seven years for the male and two years for the female. Researchers have also found that the death of a spouse can be detrimental. Dubbed the “widowhood effect,” many studies demonstrate that men who lose a wife are between 30% and 100% more likely to die within a year; the same is true for women although there are fewer studies.

Let’s get back to choice.

Data doesn’t show that arranged marriages are unequivocally better than choice marriages or vice versa, but I cannot help but think that an abundance of potential romantic partners is more harmful than not in the long term. Just as people are less satisfied when there are more options in the grocery store, it seems like they are likewise less satisfied in the long term when there are more romantic partners to choose from. Westerns think the more the merrier, but is this true when it comes to finding your future wife or husband?

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Guest Post @ Scientific American

My latest at the Scientific American guest blog. Here’s the gist of it. 

I’m a big Kanye West fan. He is an immensely talented individual who has sold more albums and gathered more acclaim than most musicians have in several life times. His widespread artistic reverence is well deserved too; as a producer, lyricist, and performer he is one of the best. Yet, the most intriguing part of Kanye is how fame and glory have negatively influenced his well-being.

Here is a man who is deeply troubled. At his core, he yearns for honest social connections, and has a difficult time understanding why he doesn’t have them. On the track, “Welcome to Heartbreak,” he sings, “my friend show me pictures of his kids… all I can show him [is] pictures of my cribs,” to confess that his financial trophies seem worthless in the face of family; and on “Runaway,” he explains that he is “so gifted at findin’ what [he] don’t like the most,” to admit that he is never satisfied with the women he meets. In a world where he has access everything, he feels as if he has nothing.

His problem is choice: he simply has too much of it.

I go on to discuss the paradox of choice, an idea empirically outlined in one of my favorite books by Barry Schwartz. Kanye is always an interesting topic, some hate him, some love him, and some don’t even know who he is. Your thoughts? Weigh in.

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