We live in a culture of unprecedented choice and often assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. Is that meme true?
Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more might not always better than less. Assessments of well-being by various social scientists—among them, David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University—reveal that increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being in the U.S. and most other affluent societies. But why?
In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the more options we have, the more information and effort we have to go into evaluating them, the more likely we are to be dissatisfied with the outcome. There is a number of reasons for that:
1) Most people hate making trade-offs and will often avoid making choices until they absolutely have to, so having an abundance of choices reminds us of this dilemma: that life is about making choices, yet we must make them within the vacuum of uncertainty and an unknown future.
2) Most people are bad at dealing with uncertainty, estimating odds and often don’t calculate probabilities properly because we have incomplete information. So trump this up to certain cognitive flaws in our human decision-making apparatus.
3) Our expectations get raised after spending time weighting the tradeoffs and understanding the choices, so we get disappointed when the outcome is not as perfect as we expect. As we know from countless studies, not to mention certain wisdoms found in traditions like Buddhism, our satisfaction is often function of when expectations match our perceived reality. In economist language, dissatisfaction occurs when the transaction costs of making the decision exceed the actual benefit.
4) What is called adaptation. In a nutshell, we adapt to our circumstances. This happens within our hedonic system as well, i.e. our internal system that modulates things that feel good and bad. So things that feel good, feel less and less good over time. So the more we have, the more we get used to this stuff, the less special it feels.
The implications of the paradox of choice apply to many aspects of our lives, including personal relationships.
As Ian Kerner points out, there’s no doubt that dating in the 21st century offers a lot of opportunities. Think about your grand-parents’ generation: They grew up with no Internet, they likely stayed in the same town for most of their lives, and they automatically had more in common with the people in that town as a result. Today, women and men are increasingly marrying someone outside of their religion, their ethnicity and their geographic area.
Never in history have we had so many potential partners to choose from – and never have we had so much difficulty choosing. In fact, several recent studies suggest that this explosion of options has made men and women feel more confused and uncertain about finding a partner than ever before.
“How can I be sure that he is the ONE?” we constantly hear from women. “How can I keep eating the same fruit for years if there are so many others to be explored? What if I realise later on that I missed the most desired fruit in my life?” are wondering men.
The problem could be our quest for perfection. We all want to believe in “The One” – a person that meets every item on our relationship checklist, who’s our soul mate forever. But when you search for perfection, you’re unlikely to find it.
“People who attempt to make the ‘perfect’ choice, whether it comes to buying a car or finding a partner, end up less satisfied, regardless of what or who they choose. That’s because they tend to look for flaws, and become disillusioned with all of their options,” says Andy Trees, Ph.D., author of “A Scientific Guide to Successful Dating.”
From Confused Bride
What can we do to return happiness into our world full of choices?
Schwartz offers a few tips in his book, including the following:
- Don’t sweat unimportant decisions.
- Limit your options. If you’re faced with overwhelming choices, arbitrarily reduce the field.
- Learn to accept “good enough”.
- Don’t second guess yourself. Once you’ve made a decision, stick with it. Be decisive.
- Embrace restraints. Schwartz argues that it’s possible to learn to love limitations. Limits give us boundaries. They eliminate uncertainty. When we know our boundaries, we can focus on thriving within them.