“Be decisive. Right or wrong, make a decision. The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t decide. “ Anon
Decision-making is inherently difficult- more so for some than others. Those who like to mull can find themselves mired in confusion over something as inconsequential as which brand of mustard or which shade of white paint to select. The insane range of possibilities only makes the problem worse.
The Tyranny and Paradox of Choice
These concepts are not original to me but I have embraced them as foundational to Robin’s Rules. Their provenance is impressive. The tyranny comes from The Economist and the paradox comes from Barry Schwartz’s, The Paradox of Choice. The core problem is that when we are presented with too many choices, we begin to imagine that there is a “perfect” choice. Occasionally there is. But more often, perfect is only aspirational and our quest for it blinds us to the good or good enough that is right in front of us.
Hundreds of mustards, oils, and pickles on the grocery shelf don’t make the decision easier- they make it harder. Picking a pickle becomes epic. The hesitant shopper in the condiment aisle is on his phone asking for a lifeline. “Do you want me to get the organic, the sugar free, the chunky, the coarse, the mild, the spicy, the glass jar, the squeeze bottle, the store brand, the American brand, the French brand, the buy one get one free…” I kid you not. Schwartz goes through a similar exercise with denim. Jeans used to be zipper, button, straight or flair. You’ve been to the jeans' purveyor and know that the condiments have nothing on the denim!
In recent years, behavioral researchers have unearthed some intriguing insights. Having no choice makes us unhappy and having too much choice does too. That no choice is a downer probably didn’t need social science experiments to determine. But that too much of a good thing is a bad thing, isn’t so obvious. The paradox or tyranny of choice has been tested and validated repeatedly. In one landmark experiment, conducted in a swank California grocery, researchers displayed a sampling of jams. First, they offered 24 tempting varieties. The next day the offering was culled to only six tempters. Shoppers who took part in the samplings were rewarded with a discount voucher to buy any jam of the same brand in the store. It turned out that more shoppers stopped at the display when there were 24 jams. But when it came to buying afterwards, fully 30% of those who stopped at the six-jam table went on to purchase a pot against merely 3% of those who were faced with the selection of 24. Similar experiments have yielded consistent results. Choice exacts a high price- confusion, indecision, even panic. Goldilocks was lucky. With only three options, just right was the obvious choice.
We’ve reached the point where the effort required to investigate and weigh all the options is wearing us out. And as we fatigue with information overload, the burden of vetting the alternatives outweighs the benefit of the extra choices. Why are retailers slow to take notice? They seem hell-bent on more being better, even though this might be to no one’s advantage. What the seller wants to sell us is not necessarily what we want to buy. As Schwartz reminds us, “Choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”
Remember the squirrel!