How having choices makes us unhappy (and how to make them work for you)
May 27, 2015
Our brain cuts corners. It's nothing but an overgrown shortcut maker. The wise ruler, Paul Atreides once said that the easy (safe, clear) path leads ever down into stagnation. So it's a wonder that...
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Our brain cuts corners. It's nothing but an overgrown shortcut maker. The wise ruler, Paul Atreides once said that the easy (safe, clear) path leads ever down into stagnation. So it's a wonder that our brains aren't completely useless by now when almost everything is does is an attempt to automate our mental processing, not to mention all the problems it causes for us. Today, I want to talk about one. One that may just be the most challenging cognitive burden we have in today's society. The problem of choice (and how to fix it).
'Choosing' isn't always problemIf it seems odd to you that choice is a problem, you could be forgiven because almost sixty years ago we found something that made us think our brains had the stress of choosing between things sorted. In 1956, Jack Brehm found evidence for what he called the free-choice paradigm. The main idea is that when we choose between two things, our brain instantly rationalises the choice we made and makes us like the other choice less. It's something we talk about in more detail here (and it's why you're not as happy as you could be). This is because, when we have two choices, we will like and dislike things about each of them. When we choose one, our brain gets a little confused because we found aspects of the other appealing. This is a kind of whats known as cognitive dissonance (mental stress caused by contradicting thoughts). Our brain hates cognitive dissonance. So it crushes it wherever it finds it. In this case, by kindly reducing the appeal of the other choice. Now there has been criticism of the idea, but it seems to hold up to scrutiny and seems to be a rather basic element of mental processing because recently we found the same thing happening in monkeys.
But choice also causes us to sufferSheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published two famous studies in 2000, known as the chocolate study and the jam study which highlights one of the key problems with Brehm's findings. In the chocolate study, they found that with less chocolates to choose from, people were more satisfied with their choice. The jam study is perhaps more illuminating. A store set up a large array of jams for tasting and a small array. More people came to the large array to taste the jams, but only three percent of them bought one. Less people came to the smaller array, and yet 30% bought one. The key issue with the free-choice paradigm is that although we are attracted to choice (one might argue that it's intrinsic to our societal values), when we have more than two, we don't always deal with the dissonance as well. In 2004, Barry Schwartz published his book 'the paradox of choice' and popularised this idea in his subsequent TED talk. Schwartz tells us that the more choices we have, the more unhappy we become with the choice we made. This may be because the sheer amount of cognitive dissonance created by the number of choices we have overwhelms our brain's ability to handle it. He calls it the 'tyranny of choice'. In Ivengar and Lepper's article, they quote the French political historian Alexis de Tocqueville:
In America I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasuresSchwartz says that in our attempts to choose, we seek perfection and so consider all the possible trade-offs we make when choosing one item over others, and it is in the consideration of the negative aspects that we overwhelm our brain's ability to focus on the positive aspects.