Beyond the Paradox of Choice

A while back, I wrote about the notion of free will as a convincing illusion. While I’m inclined to believe that we do not have free will, I will table that belief to examine choice by autonomous decision makers. If one does not believe in free will, it’s difficult to conceptualize choice in the traditional ways so, for now, let’s forget about the illusion of free will.

Every day, people face countless choices from the insignificant to the earth-shaking. We decide whether to drink tea or coffee, work or sleep, and more. Many of these decisions are multivariate, rather than binary; that is, we find ourselves with more than two options. Generally, Western societies consider increased optionality and the freedom to choose positive things. However, there comes a point when choice can be overwhelming.

The Paradox of Choice can create very negative emotions.

In his seminal work The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz examines choice in the scope of consumer psychology. By studying shoppers, he determined that people faced with too great a number of choices ended up becoming anxious and negative about their decision. Why is this? In the course of most decision-making, people rely on heuristics: quick and dirty rules for making immediate decisions. We use heuristics because they’re “good enough” and we don’t have enough time in a day to weigh the pros and cons of every little trade-off we encounter.

Unless one has a clear preference, humans exhibit a sort of mental binary relativism where decisions revolve around comparing one thing to another. For example, consider three fruits: apple, banana, and orange. Normally, I have a clear preference towards bananas; all else equal, I will take a banana over literally any other type of fruit. Today, though, I’m uncertain about what fruit to eat. Maybe I’ll switch it up and skip the banana, which leaves me with the apple and orange. I’d then compare the two and end up landing on one. Since our brains default to this method of thinking, our heuristics optimize for smallish comparisons of 2-3 alternatives. Obviously this is a simplistic example; the binary relativism shines through more often in more significant, less clear decisions.

When too many options are arrayed before us, we encounter a paradox of choice. Our heuristics fail because they are built to handle smaller sets of alternatives. I could pick easily between 2 types of jelly at the grocery store but give me eight options and I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about jelly. This happens for a number of reasons. On the level of conscious thought, the fear of missing out (FOMO) seems to play a role: “If I pick this one jelly, I’ll miss out on all the others!”

Comparing animal traits to human traits.
When looking at this graphic, you’ll compare each animal to a human in turn. We are literally incapable of larger comparisons.

More importantly, the Hick-Hyman law states that increasing available choices will delay a decision on a logarithmic time scale. It seems a bit self-evident that increasing choices will postpone choice. What’s less obvious is why the delay is logarithmic rather than linear. Marginal choices don’t add decision time at a one-to-one ratio because human beings tend to eliminate half of all possible choices at each decision step. Given 8 choices, I’ll cut 4, then 2, then 1.

Ok, so decision complexity does increase decision time, but not as much as one might expect. Would even a minimal delay cause significant issues? Intriguingly, the answer is yes. If one thinks of completed decisions or choices made as resources, they would likely be inputs in a larger process (the continuous process of constant decision-making that is daily life). Delays in decision making can create bottlenecks in larger processes.

For example, getting hung up on word choice or a graphic when preparing a slide show can postpone its completion by a significant amount. When you involve other decision makers to help, complexity increases and creates yet more delays. At that point, a four-person, one-hour meeting isn’t wasting one hour, it’s wasting four labor-hours, during which time people could have accomplished significant work.

Delegating tasks is key to avoiding bottlenecks.

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