The Paradox of Choice – More Choice Means More Happiness. Or Does It?

Choice. A term synonymous with freedom and autonomy. It is generally accepted that choice is a good thing, and that more choice is a great thing. This is the commonly accepted logic, that the more choice we have, the better off we are. Or are we?

This article will attempt to unpack how choice, and with it, our freedom, autonomy and self-determination, can become excessive, and that when this occurs, people find themselves stuck in a sort of misery-induced oppression of sorts. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, self-determination and choice, when exercised within boundaries, or rules, actually leads to better well-being.

Now before we delve into the depths of choice, please do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with choice per se. Indeed, choice is integral to helping people control their lives and achieve some measure of success in any given situation. Also, choice is a key component for autonomy, and where autonomy is a fundamental aspect of well-being. Choice is the thing that allows us to express ourselves, and be authentic in the world, it lets us tell others who we are, and what we care about. So, the difficulty here is not the concept of choice, but rather the degree to which it has evolved in modern times.

Thing is, the fact that some choice is good for people does not mean that more choice is better for us.

Additional choices come at a cost. The more choices people have, the more we start to see the negative spill-over effects of having so many choices. As choice range increases, so do the negative spill-over effects, until, ultimately, choice no longer leads to actualisation and instead starts to debilitate people.

So how then does increased choice effect our well-being? Paradoxical as it may sound, research indicates that with increased choice and increased affluence, people report decreased well-being. That’s right, more choice and more money does not mean more happiness. Add to this that people today evaluate themselves as being less happy than generations past, whilst, over this same period, the frequency of clinical depression and attempted suicide have increased dramatically.

The interesting thing here is that people who have close social ties to others (think marriage, a best friend, having a family) report greater levels of happiness than those who do not have such close ties. Well, of course that makes sense I hear you say, people are happier when they have social connections to others. No argument here. However, the interesting thing here is, that those with social ties, actually have less choice than those who do. For instance, marriage often means forsaking further choice of romantic partners, and even emotional partners for that matter.

In a retail-based study, participants were asked to evaluate a line of exotic, high quality jams. A participant could come by, taste samples, and were provided with a discount coupon in order to buy some jam. At one stand, 6 varieties of jam were on display. At the other stand, 24 varieties. Even though more people were found at the stand with 24 varieties of jam, when it came down to how much jam was tasted, the sampling was about the same between the stands, but, interestingly, 30% of people at the simpler stand bought jam, compared to only 3% at the stand with 24 varieties. It seems almost paradoxical, surely you are more likely to be able to make a choice and ignore irrelevant options when there are more alternatives? Results seem to indicate that people find this difficult to do.

What this tells us is that as the amount of choices we have increases, so too does the amount of cognitive effort we must put in to compare each choice, along with the cognitive cost of making a ‘bad’ choice. This is where maximising versus satisficing comes in. When it comes to satisficing, people simply end their search for something as soon as an option presents that exceeds a criterion they have in their mind. Maximising on the other hand attempts to find the very best option available, in a sea of options. In a nutshell, satisficing settles for good enough where maximising aims for the best possible.

Research shows that when compared to satisficers, maximisers were found to be significantly less happy and optimistic, were more likely to be depressed, reported lower self-esteem, and reported high levels of regret. Maximisers will also engage in more social comparison, particularly upward social comparison (comparing yourself to someone who is better off), as such a comparison would serve to provide evidence that the maximiser has not yet reached the best possible outcome.

So why does maximising in a world dominated by a plethora of choice impact so negatively on people’s well-being? Below is a summation of the major aspects and reasons:

  1. Regret: Regret comes in two forms, firstly, we have post-decision regret or the classic, buyer’s remorse. This is when we regret the decision we did not make, or the alternative not explored. Regret detracts from being satisfied with what was chosen, irrespective of whether regret is justifiable. The second form of regret is anticipated regret, which, can be even worse as it can be crippling. If you ask someone how they will feel buying a particular house, only to discover a better house in a weeks’ time, they probably will not buy the house. So, anticipated regret makes it difficult to make a decision, and post-decision regret makes it harder to enjoy the choice.
  2. Opportunity Cost: Making a choice means passing up another opportunity. The more alternatives there are, the greater a person’s experience of opportunity cost. The greater the experience of opportunity cost, the less satisfaction a person will experience from their choice.
  3. Adaptation Effects: When we experience a stimulus, we tend to start adapting to it. The more we are exposed to it, the more we adapt. In other words, we get used to something, and we need more of it, or something completely novel again to get the same feeling as before. This drive toward seeking out novelty has a name, it’s called the hedonic treadmill and is often accompanied by its cousin, the satisfaction treadmill which speaks to the fact that in addition to adapting to particular experiences or things, people also start to adapt to certain levels of satisfaction.
  4. High Expectations: As social and material circumstances improve, the standard that people use for comparison also increases. In other words, by getting newer, nicer things, suddenly, the old things that have nothing wrong with them, are simply no longer good enough. This cycle keeps continuing on and on, and people keep buying more and more stuff (see the hedonic treadmill above).
  5. Social Comparison: Also known as keeping up with the Jones’s this is when people compare themselves with others to see how well they compare, and by implication, how well they are doing. Thing is, there will always be someone with something bigger, better or newer.
  6. The Rise of an Individualistic Culture: As the focus is now more on material wealth and things, we start to see people being more individualistic and self-centred. Individualism usually results in an increased expectation of perfection in everything, and that the person themselves must be perfect. Anytime a person falls short of the perfect mark, their explanations for why are biased toward personal, rather than universal factors. In other words, individualism, consequent to materialism and overabundance of choice, has led to a self-blame culture.

With all this said and done, what can one do to overcome the choice paradox, and hedonic treadmill? Below is a summation of simple actions you can start doing today:

  1. Choose when you are going to choose: In order to manage the difficulty linked to too many choices, you must actively decide where in life it is most important that you invest your time and energy into making decisions, and let the other opportunities pass by.
  2. Worry less of opportunity cost: Carl Benz might have famously said the best or nothing, but when it comes to modern choices, this might not be the best option. Satisfice more, and maximise less. Sometimes good enough is actually what is best for your psyche. Good enough is far better than getting paralysed by finding the best.
  3. Practice Gratitude: By taking the time to be grateful for what one does have, you shift your mind from a state of wanting, to a state of comfort. This closes the door to disappointment, and makes you more present in the moment.
  4. Stop comparisons: Stop peeping over the wall to see what your neighbour has that you do not. It is not good for you, period.
  5. Understand that rules and boundaries, are actually good: By having a rule, or boundary, you avoid having to make a deliberate choice over and over again (like putting on your safety belt), and frees up cognitive and emotional resources for the decisions that really matter.

References & Further reading

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34–43.

Diener, E., & Suh, E. M. (Eds.). (2001). Culture and subjective well-being. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Diener, E., Diener, M., & Diener, C. (1995). Factors predicting the subjective well-being of nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 851–864.

Eckersley, R. (2002). Culture, health, and well-being. In R. Eckersley, J. Dixon, & B. Douglas (Eds.), The social origins of health and well-being (pp. 51–70). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Eckersley, R., & Dear, K. (2002). Cultural correlates of youth suicide. Social Science and  Medicine, 55, 1891–1904.

Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 56–69.

Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102, 379–395.

Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernization and postmodernization: Cultural, economic, and political changes in societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995–1006.

Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective happiness. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 3–25). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Landman, J. (1993). Regret: The persistence of the possible. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lane, R. (2000). The loss of happiness in market democracies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. (1997). Hedonic consequences of social comparison: A contrast of happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1141–1157.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. (1999). Changes in attractiveness of elected, rejected, and precluded alternatives: A comparison of happy and unhappy individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 988–1007.

McCullough, M. E., Kilpatrick, S. D., Emmons, R. A., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin, 127, 249–266.

Myers, D. G. (2000). The American paradox: Spiritual hunger in an age of plenty. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rosenhan, D. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). Abnormal psychology. New York: Norton.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco Press.

Schwartz, B., & Ward, A. (2004). Doing better but feeling worse: The paradox of choice. In P.A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 55-67). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1178–1197.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 548–573.