A- A A+

The Paradox of Choice


The Paradox of Choice

By Mark Leahy

In recent weeks I have watched and learned of the horrors unfolding in the Andaman Sea and other oceans as displaced people, migrants, refugees - no, sorry, what am I saying - unique individuals - sons, daughters, mothers and fathers, are not just drifting in the desolate oceans but, when finding shores and potential safety, are towed back out to sea and set adrift again - because it's someone else's problem.

I'm writing this article in June 2015; the stories have been widely reported in the media and I'm wondering if, when you read this, the stories will be yesterday's news but the tragedy continues.

I have often pondered, if an alien being were watching us from a distance, what would it think? Perhaps it would wonder why, on such a small planet, we cannot re-distribute more equally the plentiful food and resources which we have. Why can we not negotiate the relatively short distance across the planet and deliver to those in dire need? They would see the "haves and have nots".

The images of the desperate, vulnerable, individual human beings reminded me of the story of Viktor Frankl who, having spent most of WW2 in various German concentration camps, including Auschwitz, survived with a belief and strength of character quite remarkable. His view that, in life we probably cannot avoid suffering, but we can decide how we respond to it, is probably best captured in one of his best-known quotations:
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

During an era when behaviourism was possibly at its most popular, this was an easily understood concept. But what about today? How are the starving, naked refugees who are desperately clinging to un-sea-worthy vessels in the Andaman Sea responding to their stimuli? Quite simply, they're taking their chances on the ocean.

And what of their decision to risk death by making the journey in the first place? It's probable that they felt they had little choice but to take the risk. It led me to think about how we make choices on a day to day basis - not "life or death" choices, fortunately, but everyday choices.

It could be argued that the more choices we have, the better off we are. If there are five different cereals to choose from on the supermarket shelf, adding a further three gives us more options. Why wouldn't we be happier? The wider choice will make some people happier and those who are already delighted with their "wheaty-bangs" from the original choice of five cereals are no worse off. This greater choice gives us more control over our lives and therefore presumably enhances our wellbeing. This seems intuitive.

However, research by Barry Schwartz into this area suggests that more choice can actually make us dissatisfied; but how can this be? Schwartz argues that (and I promise that the remainder of this sentence is not a confusion technique!) it isn't the case that choice is not good, but it isn't only good. Once the benefits of choice have plateaued, there are disadvantages that start taking effect. For example, we may become bamboozled by the array of choices and afraid we'll make a bad decision because the process has become too complicated. Or, even if we make a good decision, we may become dissatisfied because we think there may have been a better option. So choice is good; but it isn't only good.

Schwartz likens this notion to the inverted U theory (optimal performance occurs as the performer reaches an optimal level of arousal) - i.e. a certain amount of choice is good, but beyond that it becomes counter-productive as the negatives outweigh the positives.

However, according to Schwartz, there is about as much research that argues that more choice is good as there is that maintains that more choice is bad - so we're really none-the-wiser. Or are we? A recent meta-analysis of studies into choice claims that the "too much choice" effect is indeed real and happens under certain conditions and only with certain personality types. Schwartz conducted his own research and identified a personality trait known as "maximizing" (trying to achieve the very best) as opposed to "satisficing" (looking for "good enough"). It appears that people who score as high maximizers are likely to be less happy and less optimistic - even borderline clinically depressed, according to Schwartz.

So, in a world of increasing numbers of options, being a maximizer may not be good for one's mental wellbeing. Maximizers tend to secure better jobs than satisficers yet feel worse about the jobs they get; they will do better than satisficers, but feel worse!
Interestingly, Schwartz did not look for any correlation between maximizing and high ambition or need for achievement, although he did look at perfectionism and optimism as potential correlates. So, any psychologists out there looking for a subject to investigate, here it is!

I suppose that many of us do have a tendency to think about all the other options that we have turned down, once we've made a choice. But do we consider how many of those options which we've turned down were truly realistic alternatives? Is it a case of the grass always being greener on the other side? And is the grass greener to the extent that we perceive it to be?

I heard a story about Lori Gottlieb, the author of a book called "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough". An apparently amusing book about her efforts to find her ideal partner while her biological clock is ticking. She visits some sort of "matchmaker" and presents him with an extremely lengthy list of attributes which her ideal mate must possess. The matchmaker looks at her list and laughs. She asks what he finds so funny. He replies that he thinks there are probably four or five - a maximum of, say, ten men in the entire world who might meet all her criteria - and then he pauses before asking…"and what makes you think any of them would be remotely
interested in you?" This is what changed her thinking and she adopted the approach of "what's good enough?".

But of course no-one wants to be told that they should settle for a "good enough" life partner. When we hear the phrase "good enough" we think "second best/compromise". But surely we can have very high standards without thinking we must absolutely get the best? If you want to go to one of the top ten universities in the UK, you would be setting your sights high. It just doesn't have to be Cambridge or Oxford; it could be Durham, St. Andrews, Warwick…or The Open University. You'd have high standards, without thinking you have to have what might be considered the best.

So, maybe when you're burning the midnight oil as you work on the umpteenth iteration of your TMA, you really should consider the possibility that good enough, almost always is, good enough!

Mark Leahy

This article originally appeared in the News & Views Summer 2015 edition.


Search OUPS