My first time ordering a sandwich from Subway was a memorable one; do I prefer nine-grain wheat or nine-grain oat bread? Do I usually like my cheese shredded or sliced? Which sauce would go best with the precise ingredients that I just picked out? What began to feel like a mini self-reflection session finally came to an end, and I was standing in front of the cashier with my very own sandwich. We live in a world full of choices; from the food we eat, what detergents we wash our dishes with, which new phone to purchase, what health insurance to join — we are constantly surrounded by options on a daily basis. But the more important question to ask is whether these choices are actually making us happier.
The paradox of choice refers to the idea that the intuitive assumption that more choice is always better may actually prove the opposite. On the surface, it seems as though choices bring us more — whether it be satisfaction, happiness, or welfare. The benefits seem to be substantiated in numerous areas of study; in psychology, choice is associated with autonomy and control. Economists call it the pareto improvement, where one can be better off without making someone else worse off.
However, Barry Schwartz suggested a paradox of choice from a new perspective. With more options to choose from, people may actually find it harder to choose at all. This paralysis stands in direct contrast to the freedom that people would expect with a catalogue of options. The growing risk of miscalculation, not knowing all the alternatives, and the pressure of information acquisition can lead one to bury one’s head and refuse to make a decision. The second effect is the diminishing of overall satisfaction. Once a decision is made, pondering the potential benefits and opportunities missed from the unchosen options makes it harder to commit to what is actually at hand.
A study conducted in a grocery store in California demonstrated this paradox in people’s everyday life. Researchers installed a tasting table, where anyone who sampled a spread would get a discount coupon for the jam. On the first day, 24 different jams were placed on display. On another day, the spread was limited to only six varieties. As expected, the larger display of jam did attract a greater number of customers. However, when it came to actually buying the product, people who visited the display with six jams were 10 times more likely to make the purchase.
What makes this paradox so relevant is that the pursuit of choices is increasingly reflected in many aspects of society. Take the rise of personalized industry for example; ever since the rise of assembly lines and robots, the main focus of the manufacturing sector was mass production. However, the aim seems to have shifted from efficiency to personalized products over the past decade. The proliferation of social media has played a critical role in that firms can utilize big data in order to cater to the preference of their individual customers. From companies simply competing to differentiate their products, customization has opened a whole new door to truly limitless options.
Growing up in an age of constant decision making, today’s teenagers may be more affected by the paradox of choice than others. Among the young generation in South Korea, there is even a term — gyeoljung jangae — which denotes anyone who finds it extremely difficult to make a choice. The seemingly transient nature of decision making may perhaps take away the value in commitment. As Dan O’Neil, a British life coach helping people with indecision, comments, “Young people have grown up with masses of choice, but they have never learned to make a choice and run with it. In adult life, they aren’t equipped to cope.”
In times of “personalized everything” and countless choices at our fingertips, it is only natural that people’s expectations just continue to grow. However, for the sake of our own happiness and perhaps a little more simplicity in life, it seems important to remind ourselves that the perfect choice does not always exist.