On the paradox of choice

As humans, we have a natural tendency to seek out more options, believing that more choices will always lead to greater satisfaction. However, as psychologist Barry Schwartz points out, too many options can actually lead to a paradoxical decrease in satisfaction.

This is what he calls the paradox of choice: the idea that when we are presented with too many options, we become overwhelmed and unable to make a decision. The abundance of options can increase our expectations for what we want, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction with whatever choice we make.

This phenomenon is especially evident in our daily lives. On social media, we’re shown curated feeds engineered to capture and keep our attention with countless topics of interest. At the grocery store, we’re faced with thousands of product choices, leading to decision paralysis. And we’ll all had those days where we’ve spent more time browsing through the options on Netflix than actually watching anything.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with choices, knowing how to make the "right" decision can be difficult.

Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard. - Barry Schwartz

But there are a couple of related strategies that can help when we’re faced with decision-making challenges.

The first is the explore-exploit tradeoff. When we don't have enough information about a decision, it's prudent to explore our options instead of immediately choosing the first one we come across. Committing to exploitation too soon can result in selecting the obvious choice and feeling regretful about "what if" scenarios.

This tradeoff is often naturally time-bound. When choosing something to watch on Netflix, you don't have all day to make a decision. However, if you're making a career change, you'll probably want to give yourself a lot more time. For decisions big and small, it's helpful to consider how long you want to spend exploring before switching to exploitation mode.

The second strategy is choosing satisficing over maximizing. When we’re maximizing, we aim to find the "best" option. Maximizers tend to consider a larger number of options and spend more time and effort searching for the "perfect" choice. Satisficing, on the other hand, is when we aim to find an option that meets our criteria and is "good enough." Rather than spending time and energy searching for the "perfect" option, satisficers are content with a choice that meets their needs and doesn't require excessive effort to find.

This can be difficult in practice, especially if you have a perfectionist streak. But I've found it to be a much more viable decision-making strategy.

It's the equivalent of choosing experimentation and iteration when building a startup or product, rather than trying to come up with the perfect solution and sticking to it regardless of user and market feedback. Startups that learn quickly and execute on their learnings usually win their market.

Life is surprisingly similar. In a constantly changing world, it's unrealistic to come up with the perfect path and stick to it dogmatically. That's a recipe for dissatisfaction. The better option is to alternate appropriately between exploration and exploitation, embrace experimentation, and choose satisficing over maximizing.

This approach also has the secondary benefit of helping you become more self-compassionate. When you're no longer chasing perfection, you give yourself room to fail, learn, and recognize the inherent uncertainty in all decisions.

These strategies are not mutually exclusive and can be used in tandem to help you make better decisions. By exploring your options and then satisficing, you can find a choice that meets your needs and allows you to move forward without feeling regretful or overwhelmed. And as Barry Schwartz suggests, learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities may be difficult, but it's not impossible.