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.