Too many choices are killing us — Part 2

Seven strategies to gain more satisfaction from your decisions and preserve your sanity — second part of my original piece on choice.

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Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

In Part 1, I wrote how exploding choices in almost all areas of life are making us more anxious and unhappy than before. When the number of alternatives involved in making a decision increase beyond a reasonable number, subtle psychological effects start chipping away at any satisfaction we hoped to derive from that decision. So is there a panacea for this uniquely modern problem? The slightly complicated answer is ‘no’, because there is no single weapon we can use to fight this onslaught of excessive choice. Rather, what we will need is a whole new way of thinking about our decisions. Since implications of choice affect us at multiple levels, this war needs to be fought at more than one front.

Here then, are seven ways in which we can push back against the tyranny of choice and reclaim some sanity in our lives.

Choose when to choose

When we automatically assume that more choice is a good thing, we expose ourselves to unintended effects that seriously undermine our satisfaction with the chosen option. But there seems to be a contradiction in this claim: when we consider more alternatives, don’t we have a better chance of making the right decision? Why then do we end up feeling less than stellar about it?

The simple reason is that our satisfaction with a decision is more dependent on subjective feeling rather than the objective qualities of the chosen alternative. This claim derives from a core principle of human psychology that the world is not an unchanging, true reality but what our minds interpret it to be. That is why each person sees, and reacts to, the same events differently. What this means is that our reactions to our decisions are also largely subjective, however rationally we might have made that decision. So even if you choose the objectively best option, but have undergone significant anguish in doing so, you will most definitely not feel ecstatic with your choice.

The implication of the above finding is straightforward: when faced with an overwhelming number of choices clamoring for our attention, we need to decide which choices are worth spending energy on and which ones need to be let go. In order to provide our full attention to decisions that truly matter and derive the maximum satisfaction from them, we will necessarily have to give up the power to choose in other, less important areas.

Become a satisficer, not a maximizer

In an ideal world, with no constraints on what is possible, we should obviously want to pick the best alternative when making a choice. Only problem is, there is no such thing as an ideal world and the constraints imposed by reality are all too real. A maximizer is a person who ignores this reality and considers a decision optimal only when she has picked the ‘best’ option of all. However, by discounting the subjective nature of satisfaction, she sets herself up for disappointment and regret. Even when the best possible selection has been made, she might be racked by apprehension about the possibility of unexplored options that could have been even better.

On the other end of the spectrum is the satisficer, a person who makes decisions based on the standards she has set for herself rather than pursuing the best option. Once she finds an option that is good enough, a satisficer stops looking for any more alternatives; this way, even a large number of options do not faze her because she has a clear set of rules to guide her decision-making behavior. A simple example of this approach is looking at only a few stores before deciding to buy something and then just refusing to spend any more time or effort on this task.

To be a satisficer is to realize that in addition to the visible cost of a particular alternative, there are also hidden costs — in terms of time, effort and anxiety — that erode the attractiveness of even the best alternative. Therefore, the most efficient strategy is to be aware of this cumulative cost and restrict the number of options under consideration. By learning to embrace ‘good enough’ in most areas, we can free up our energies to go for the best where it it truly matters.

Reduce expectations

We sometimes agonize endlessly over decisions because we hope for some outsized outcome. For instance, while choosing a vacation we want our enjoyment to be on the highest end of the scale. As a result, we embark on a massive and time-consuming exercise of evaluating hundreds of options on where to go, which hotel to stay in, and which activities to pursue there. However, once the much anticipated vacation begins,more often than not we are left with an underwhelming feeling. What gives?

In an era where there are countless options available for almost everything, we are expected to always pick the perfect one. This pressure is amplified especially because social comparison is nearly effortless in today’s internet-driven society. However, by spending this inordinate effort required to choose the so-called best option, our expectations of the end result begin to rise rapidly as well. This means that when the actual experience deviates even slightly from these pre-set expectations, we are left feeling disappointed.

The simple antidote to having your expectations dashed is to simply not set them so high in the first place. A new car, a stunning vacation or a much-wanted job are all highly desirable, but to expect them to elevate your experience much higher than what you are used to is to set yourself up for disappointment. We would do much better if we just left the field open for serendipity and surprise.

Prepare for adaptation

The essential principle behind adaptation is that no experience or possession has the power to give us sustained joy. The implication of this truth for decision-making is that the cost of choosing should be commensurate with the amount and duration of pleasure we expect to get from it. The thrill of a new possession is short-lived; so does it make sense to incur significant costs in time and effort to ensure that we pick the very best?

Being aware of the effects of adaptation is a first, but significant step, in helping to reduce the disappointment we might feel at a decision. Knowing beforehand that the pleasure of today will turn into simple comfort tomorrow will save us from the sting of regret and dissatisfaction. Further, feeling gratitude for what we have will act against the tendency to take things for granted.

Practice gratitude

In his bestselling book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz talks about how the bronze medal winners at the Olympics are much happier than the silver medalists. This is because the third-place finisher is grateful for at least making it to the podium, while the silver-medalist can only think of the gold medal that got away. This example shows that being mindful of what is going well in our lives does not come naturally to us, while imagining better scenarios when we are dissatisfied happens almost effortlessly.

The realization that nearly any decision has the potential to go either way, is a powerful one. We are here in the present not just because of all the good things that happened to us but also the bad ones that didn’t. Remembering this will give us the strength to accept the outcomes of our decisions even if they don’t conform to our original expectations.

Lessen your regret

Whenever we take a decision, the dark cloud of regret is never far away; a less than ideal outcome usually sends us tumbling down into a spiral where we can’t but help imagine scenarios where everything turned out fine. In fact, it is probably the fear of regret that explains the modus operandi of a maximizer — in her world, the more options she considers, the less is the probability of making a regretful decision. But as we have already seen, increasing our options usually makes things worse for our mental well-being.

Even though it is impossible to completely eliminate regret, we can lessen its impact by aiming for the standard-driven process of the satisficer. By doing this, the vast number of options would not torment us; rather they would only serve to help us find the ‘good enough’ option quicker. Finally, we would do well to remember that most single events or decisions are not powerful enough to completely alter the course of our lives. Therefore, regretting something we did or did not do in the past is probably an overreaction that the event doesn’t deserve.

Make decisions irreversible

When you are not fully committed to a decision, you are more likely to not follow through with it fully. This means that any decision that can be reversed has the effect of making us second guess our choice, instead of helping us focus all our energies on making it work. An irreversible decision, rather than representing a passive acceptance of whatever outcome comes our way, can give us the strength to work hard towards achieving the outcome that we seek. After all, it is not for nothing that Batman removed the harness before he made the jump towards the ledge and onto freedom.

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