OMG! Too Many Options

Ingenuity. Productivity. Creativity. Opportunity. It is all great. To a point. And then… you have the cereal aisle in the supermarket. No Sugar. Natural Sugar. Whole Wheat. All Natural. No Artificial Colors. Gluten Free. Super Heroes. No Artificial Sweeteners. Added Iron. No Nuts. Fiber Added. Kosher. No MSG. Organic. Dairy Free. Not to mention Toucan Sam and Tricks Rabbit.

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And after you make it through the cereal aisle, you need to face the orange juice section, then the yogurt aisle. You get home, unpack the groceries, and sit down to catch up on email only to find a cheery message telling you it is time to choose from among your 25 health insurance options and 14 life insurance plans. At this point, I might opt to take a break and do something totally relaxing like get a manicure except for the fact that the last time I did so I short circuited as I stared at the row of no fewer than 20 shades of white. Not to mention “240 shades for every fall nail polish need.” And that’s just O.P.I. Really?!?!


Choice Overload is Real. Too few options on cereal and life insurance – and everything in between – is something of an impoverished life experience that can leave us wanting. But the other extreme is choice overload, which comes at a huge price to our mental health and wellbeing. First introduced by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock, choice overload is that experience of having so many options that decision making becomes a burden. Sometimes so much so we just opt out. Take for example, retirement savings. When employees have just 5 options, about 70.1% choose a plan. When their options expand to 35, participation actually drops to 63%.


Factors that influence degree of choice overload: Summarizing across a large body of research, Northwestern Professor Alexander Chernev and colleagues found that these four dimension of a decision influence degree of choice overload: 1) difficulty of the decision making task (e.g., How much time do I have?; Does my decision impact anyone else?); 2) complexity of the choice set (e.g., Is there an obvious option that is most popular? How do the other options compare?); 3) level of preference uncertainty (e.g., Can I really tell which health insurance plan will best suit my needs for the coming year? If I don’t know when I will retire, how can I choose the ideal plan?); and 4) investment in the decision (e.g., How much cognitive energy am I willing to expend on choosing my cereal, juice, health insurance, home?).


Decision Paralysis, Maximizers, Satisficers and Depressed Mood. In situations with too many options, we are more likely to get overwhelmed when making decisions. This can result in decision paralysis and procrastination. With too many options, when we finally do make a decision, we are also more likely to experience regret. We keep wondering if we would have been happier with one of the missed options. Of course, we approach various situations with different assumptions and expectations. Some of us tend to be maximizers and some of us satisficers, and the decision we are making will influence where we fall on this continuum as well. When functioning as maximizers, we have a strong desire to carefully consider all options and aim to identify the “best” one. As satisficers, on the other hand, we seek to make a “good enough” decision. Maximizers have high potential, but also high risk for fatigue and depressive symptoms. Expecting a great outcome given all their efforts, maximizers are subject to blaming themselves for failing to get the analysis right if they fall short.


Prioritizing choice can cost us in satisfaction. We love our optionality.
But studies by Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert and Brandeis Professor Jane Erbert suggest that sometimes we may be prioritize choice to such an extent that we actually make ourselves less happy. One of their studies, for example, revealed that when the students were able to change their minds about the photograph that they chose to frame and retain at the end of a course, they reported lower levels of satisfaction with the photo chosen. In contrast, students who were not allowed to change their minds reported increasing levels of satisfaction with their decision over time. This tendency to “keep our options open” whenever possible, may actually be associated with our feeling worse about many real life situations.


Uncertainty about the future clouds decision making. Too many options leads to decreased confidence about making a choice, especially when we are feeling unsure about what the future will bring. University of Pennsylvania Professor Katherine Milkman has shown that as uncertainty rises, we are more prone to choose the options that represent what we want for immediate gratification even if we know that another choice would be better for us in the long run. In addition to her own research studies demonstrating this effect, she cites the real world economic crisis of 2008-2009. During this time of dramatic disruptions and increased uncertainty in the lives of many Americans, candy sales skyrocketed as other consumer expenditures plummeted.


Last week, as my son and I enjoyed a long weekend in Napa Valley for a belated birthday celebration, we marveled at the weather and grapes and all the artisanal foods. Two of our meals were set menus. Our only decision was making the reservations. In both cases, we ate foods we would not have ordered on our own. Departing the restaurants, we remarked at how wonderful it was to be relieved of so many decisions. Nutritional and emotional satisfaction was at an all-time-high.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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