At the drugstore, I stood before the nail polish display. There was a sale, two for the price of one. I picked up a bottle, and then put it back. I chose another shade. “I think you already have that one, Mom,” said my youngest daughter.
“Oh, right.” I returned it back to the rack. After five minutes of trying to pick two nail polish colors out of the fifty offered, I gave up and moved on with my shopping. I just couldn’t make a decision, no matter how good the price.
The nail polish indecision isn’t an isolated event. More and more I find myself overwhelmed with the dizzying array of choices I face each day, and weighed down by decision-making that often seems beyond my capacity. What is the healthiest diet? Gluten-free, low carb, or the Ph plan? Did the kids need to play soccer, softball, and roller hockey, or should they join swim team and 4H? Buy a new car or run our old one into the ground? More and more, I either walk away without choosing, or make a decision with some degree of misgivings.
It seems ridiculous that I am unable to embrace all the options before me. After all, doesn’t having a lot of choices make us smarter, healthier, and more attractive? Doesn’t autonomous decision-making improve our quality of life? “The story upon which the American dream depends is the story of limitless choices,” says Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of the book The Paradox of Choice. “Americans believe that the more choices people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”
But new research has found that too many choices might actually have the opposite effect, overwhelming our daily lives and decreasing our well-being and overall happiness. Social psychologist Sheena Iyengar writes in her book, The Art of Choosing, “Americans are discovering that unlimited choices seem more attractive in theory than in practice. Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents in America.”
Parenting experts suggest that it is better to give a toddler an either/or choice–apple juice or orange juice–rather than ask the open-ended question, “What would you like to drink?” Developmentally, too many choices are overwhelming and frustrating for young children. Interestingly, research has found that in adulthood we still have limited decision-making capacity. In a study where shoppers were offered jams from a display table, Iyengar found that “people were six times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they saw six jars displayed than if they saw twenty-four.” This was true even if the jam was on sale. Not so different from my nail polish dilemma.
Says Iyengar, “We all have physical, mental, and emotional limitations that make it impossible for us to process every single choice we encounter, even in the grocery store, let alone over the course of our entire lives.” We think we want the option of 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins, but Iyengar found that over 50 percent of patrons choose plain vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate. “When you give people ten or more options when they are making a choice, they make poorer decisions,” says Iynegar.
Not only do too many choices make us less competent decision makers, but the number of decisions we have to make each and every day can be so consuming that it eats up a good deal of our time and mental capacity. Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College, says that he has seen the effects of too many choices and information overload on his students. In a 2005 TedTalk, he states, “I assign 20 percent less work than I used to. It is not because they (my students) are less smart, and it’s not because they’re less diligent. It’s because they are preoccupied.” Preoccupied by all the decisions demanding their attention, such as which technology to buy. Instead of learning, students are choosing the kind of Smart Phone they need. Should it be a Palm Treo, Blackberry, or iPhone? Do they need to buy a Kindle, iPad, or Nook to hold all their reading material? Desktop computer or laptop? And within each of these decisions are a dozen more. No wonder Schwartz’s students don’t have time to hit the books.
Another reason that decision-making is so overwhelming is because we are becoming more and more responsible for decision-making in areas where we don’t have a lot of knowledge or expertise. Nowhere is this more glaring than in the medical field. Schwartz says that the current practice is for doctors to give patients several health care options and then let them choose. “We call it ‘patient autonomy,’ which makes it sound like a good thing,” says Schwartz. “But it is really a shifting of the burden and the responsibility for decision-making from somebody who knows something to somebody who knows nothing and is most certainly sick and thus not in the best shape to be making decisions.”
Iyengar studied this issue among families who had to make a decision regarding stopping life support for newborns who would die within a few days regardless of further treatment. In France, the doctors made the decision to stop treatment and life support, whereas in the United States, the decision-making fell to the parents. In followup interviews a year later, Iyengar found that the French parents had a much easier time moving on and had a more positive overall view of the tragic situation than the American parents who tended to feel guilty and felt that they were put in the position of “executioners.”
Iyengar’s findings are understandable, as it is often the parental decisions that feel like the most difficult decisions to make. Every fall, I struggle with the question of whether or not the members of our family should get a flu shot. I read online articles for and against flu shots until my eyes are blurry. I seek the opinions of friends, people in the medical field, and alternative health practitioners. I weigh the pros and cons: What if we don’t get my oldest daughter a flu shot and she gets the flu sending her into an asthma spin she can’t recover from? But what if I do get them a flu shot and something in the formula makes them develop a terrible health crisis later in life? Some years we all get the flu shot, and some years we don’t, but never do I feel comfortable with my decision.
According to Schwartz, one effect of too many choices and too much decision-making is decreased satisfaction with any option we pick. “Whenever you are choosing one thing, you’re choosing not to do another,” says Schwartz. “If you buy one, and it’s not perfect, it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. This imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.”
I know just what he means.
Eight years ago, when my second child was born, I started meditating. I read an article about Eknath Easwaran’s method of “prayer meditation.” I made a commitment to practice thirty minutes of prayer meditation every day for a year. During that time period, I read a number of books about other meditation techniques. When the year ended, I decided I wanted to continue a meditation practice, but that I would allow myself to explore all the different meditation options.
I haven’t had a consistent or satisfying meditation practice since. I spend much of my allotted meditation time switching from one meditation practice to another, searching for the best option. Often, this becomes so annoying and unfulfilling that I quit meditation all together for long stretches of time. Overwhelmed by my options, I often choose not to meditate rather than meditate “wrong.”
And getting it wrong is not acceptable when we have so many choices and so much information at our fingertips. Schwartz explains, “With hundreds of choices, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, and even though the results of those decisions are good, they feel disappointed about them, and blame themselves.”
So if we aren’t equipped to handle all these choices thrown at us, what should we do?
Iyengar suggest that we become “choosy about choosing.” Instead of binging on all our options, she recommends a decision-making diet: delegate as many choices as you can to others; limit how much advice, opinion, or information you seek when making a decision; and, when unable to decide, decide not to decide and just try on each choice for a little while to see how it feels.
She also suggests looking to those who work within a creative realm for ideas about how to limit the sphere within which we operate, thereby limiting options. “Inventors, artists, and musicians have long known the value of putting constraints on choice. They work within forms, strictures, and rules, many of which they break only to establish new boundaries, sometimes even tighter ones.” Establish your focus, stick to it, and your number of choices immediately narrows.
Some of the best decision-making advice I ever received came from another parent. When my oldest daughter reached preschool age, I had to decide between the four preschools available in our town. I’d visited them all, and asked every person I remotely knew who had kids for their opinion. I was frantic to make the right choice.
When I called Emily, a friend of a friend, she sighed and said, “When you are making these kinds of decisions, there’s never a 100 percent right answer. Sometimes, the most you can shoot for is 65 percent. If you feel 65 percent good about something, give it a try.”
“Sixty-five percent is a D,” I countered.
“I know,” said Emily gently. “Often that is the best you can hope for, as hard as that is.”
The more I thought about Emily’s advice, the more the angst and tension surrounding the preschool decision fell away. Realizing that there was no right answer, just a lot of choices, eased the burden significantly, and has eased many other parenting decisions since. Ironically, after deciding on a preschool, we ended up taking our daughter out after four months. I might have saved myself a lot of sleepless nights if I had considered whether I really needed to make a decision at all.
Both Iyengar and Schwartz emphasize that humans need to have choices. Choice gives us control over our lives, and a sense of freedom and well-being. But wading through too many choices on a daily basis may drive us to a state of constant anxiety and dissatisfaction. “There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow that more choice is better than some choice,” says Schwartz.
Lately, I’ve put myself on a decision-making diet: I’ve discarded my piles of magazines that offer endless ads and dozens of self-help articles; made a practice of limiting Internet searches to three hits; and have learned to eliminate decisions that just don’t need to be made, like upgrading my cell phone when I am perfectly happy with the one I have now. I try to keep my options to under ten when a decision has to be made, and ask for less advice. By slimming down in my decision-making, I am beginning to feel more confident and satisfied with my choices.
Recent when I went to the drugstore, I took one look at the nail polish display with the big sale sign and kept right on walking. It was one less decision I needed to make that day.