I Was Paralyzed…

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-bewildered-business-man-image14179452It was 3 AM and I stood in the aisle of Wal-mart completely paralyzed: I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, and was utterly helpless as to what to do next.

It was the first few hours of being back in America after living in China for a year and a half. Jetlag was in full gear and I was famished and wide awake in the middle of the night. Now I was completely dumbfounded.

What was I facing that was so difficult? Choice.

I needed to buy a tube of toothpaste and there before me were hundreds of possible flavors, brands, colors, packaging, and sizes. It was completely overwhelming after having only a few choices less than 24 hours earlier in my home half-way around the world.

Most of us believe that choice makes us happy and that our lives are better the more choices we have. As Barry Schwartz pointed out in his 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” choices actually make us miserable. If you haven’t read the book, I suggest you try it. You will also enjoy his TED talk on the subject.

There is too much to say here to completely understand what he is saying, but I want to mention a couple of reasons why choice makes us miserable. First, we regret the choice we have made. Second, our expectations are higher the more choices we have. And third, we blame ourselves if the choice wasn’t perfect (and few choices are ever perfect).

On top of that, a recent study suggests that too much choice leads to riskier decisions*.

Wow! Who thought that choice was bad?!

Things aren’t getting easier, either. Take peanut better, for example. When I was a kid there were two choices: smooth or chunky. I just took a look at Skippy’s website, and there are no less than 11 choices now, ranging from Skippy Reduced Fat Creamy, to Skippy Natural ⅓ Less Sodium & Sugar, to Skippy Super Natural Super Chunk with Honey. What is a peanut butter lover to do?!

Armed with the knowledge that more choice is not necessarily better, what can we do to help ourselves, our family, our coworkers, and our clients?

  • When making a decision for yourself, don’t look at every choice available but think through what you really want and decide from a few, more limited options.
  • When in leadership, don’t feel the need to give your team members every choice available. Choose to limit the choices available for possible solutions.
  • When making a sale, don’t overwhelm the buyer with too many choices.

Well, I gotta go for now, I need to go buy a chocolate candy bar. You don’t think there will be too many choices, do you?

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*Thomas T. Hills, Takao Noguchi, Michael Gibbert. Information overload or search-amplified risk? Set size and order effects on decisions from experience. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2013; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-013-0422-3

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