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The Paradox of Choice: Why Can’t I Decide?

Written by Nickel - 7 Comments

The Paradox of Choice: Why Can't I Decide?Have you read “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz? It’s a fascinating book in which Schwartz argues that we’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices that we face on a daily basis and that, by eliminating consumer choices, we could greatly reduce shopper anxiety.

The paradox of choice is sometimes referred to analysis paralysis, and it flies in the face of the idea that more options result in greater consumer satisfaction. When we’re overloaded with options, we can begin to question our decisions even before we make them.

My recent run-in with this phenomenon happened while I was trying to plan a last minute beach vacation. After poking around on mainstream hotel/resort sites, I turned my attention to VRBO.com, which is a great site for finding “Vacation Rentals by Owner” — that is, individually-owned properties that are being offered for rent.

Overwhelmed with options

The problem with VRBO is that there are so many options out there. Admittedly, this problem was compounded by a relatively vague search image on our part. All we really knew was our price range, the dates we wanted to travel, and that we wanted a beachfront place somewhere along the southeast Atlantic coast.

But still, so many options… Do we want to stay in this state or that one? This town or another one? Which beach? And so on. Even after we started narrowing things down, we were left with a tremendous number of choices.

I spent hours and hours (and hours!) weeding through things. On more than one occasion, I found myself with dozens and dozens (and dozens!) of browser tabs open, each with a different option. I stayed up late Saturday night, picked up again on Sunday afternoon/evening, and didn’t actually make a decision until sometime later in the day on Monday.

Honestly, I was ready to throw in the towel more than once, not because I couldn’t find any good options, but because I couldn’t decide amongst all the options that I did find. It was frustrating beyond measure.

The perfect is the enemy of the good

In the end, this whole experience confirmed something that I’ve always known about myself… I’m a “maximizer.” Quoting from WikiPedia’s excellent summary of the book, here’s what I’m talking about:

“A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better.”

Were there properties available that would’ve met our requirements? Absolutely. There were tons of them. But what if the one that I chose wasn’t the best option? In the end, it really wouldn’t matter. We’d go on vacation and have a blast. But the possibility that there might be something better out there haunted me.

As a wise man once told me, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The next time you’re faced with a multitude of choices, do yourself a favor…

Take a step back and define your expectations. Next, find an option that will meet those expectations, select it, and move on. For a maximizer like me, this is easier said than done, but it’s certainly worth a shot.

If you can’t do this on an ongoing basis, then at least try to learn to recognize relatively unimportant decisions so you can move through those quickly and save your anxiety for things that really matter. Either that, or marry a satisficer and let them decide. ;-)

Published on July 14th, 2010
Modified on July 21st, 2010 - 7 Comments
Filed under: Consumer

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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7 Responses to “The Paradox of Choice: Why Can’t I Decide?”

  1. 1
    Carol Says:

    I’m definitely a maximizer. It would definitely haunt me wondering if I hadn’t picked the best option.

  2. 2
    Rob Says:

    I am most definitely a maximizer as well, especially when it comes to making large purchases. I just bought a DSLR for my wife and all told I probably spent at least 10 – 20 hours over the last few months researching them.

    I had started reading The Paradox of Choice a while back and although I did not finish it, just the portion I read was great. It really helps to make me aware that I am spending too much time worrying about something. It is that last part Nickel mentioned that is especially important – being ok with the fact that there might be something better. Truth of the matter is, there is always going to be something better, just like there is always going to be someone more wealthy, better looking, or more athletic than you. Getting over that and being OK with the choices you make will help to greatly reduce your stress.

  3. 3
    John Says:

    I can be a maximizer in some regards but once a purchase is made I don’t worry about the possibility of a better deal very much. The worst for me is computer parts and electronics. I spend months researching while I am gathering funds to purchase. I started planning my last computer build in June of 2008, then built it in April of 2009 from parts that didn’t exist when I started the planning process.

    The analysis conundrum can also affect projects. There was a network cable that needed to be dug in across a driveway at my parent’s house. During the summer was a bad time because truck traffic needed to go over that area. in winter it was either too wet or frozen to dig. If conditions were good for it then there was always another project that needed done. 2+ years later it wasn’t done. One weekend I showed up and started digging. It wasn’t planned perfectly and the ground was a bit too wet for the job, but it got done and now we don’t need to worry about it any more.

    The perfect opportunity rarely arrives, but plenty of good ones do. When a good one does, it pays to hop on board.

  4. 4
    Benjamin Bankruptcy Says:

    I always try and tell myself that i’m trying to be perfect i’m trying to be better.

    I guess this is why I’m a little overwhelmed when I go shopping for clothes with my gf? Put two tops together and I’ll tell you which one I like more, but ask me to pick a shirt out of a rack of like 500 and I have no idea.

  5. 5
    Doug Warshauer Says:

    I’m a big fan of this book. It has applications in so many arenas.

    Personally, I’m a satisficer most of the time, but every once in a while…

  6. 6
    Donna Says:

    Bless you for your great email!! I’m sitting here struggling with just those issues about a car repair and whew!! thank you thank you thank you! for helping me to understand why we’re making things such a struggle!

    We’re going to become satisficers!! yeah!! what a relief!! We’ve been trapped by this maximizer philosphy for years!

  7. 7
    Moneyedup Says:

    I have definitely felt perplexed by the plethora of choices available to me in stores. A ten minute trip to the store can sometimes take up to an hour as I get caught up in paradox of choice. For example, there are so many brands of shampoo, and then each brand has a generic counterpart which has to be mulled over as well. Was life much simpler when you only had to decide between a few brands? It may have been but there was less room for personal choice.

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