It's nice to have options. Decades of research shows that people provided with a limited set of options exhibit increased choice motivation and outcome satisfaction compared to those given no choice at all (1), a fact that may seem intuitively obvious. Yet if the number of options exceeds a certain threshold, motivation and satisfaction fail to increase and - somewhat astonishingly - they actually decline.
One particular study from a few years ago (1) used a couple of well-designed experiments to investigate how having too many options leads to reduced choice motivation and outcome satisfaction.
In the first experiment, two tasting booths containing exotic jams were set up in a grocery store. The first booth contained a limited selection of 6 different jams and the other booth contained a more extensive selection of 24 different jams. Of the 260 customers who passed by the booth with the limited selection, 40% of them stopped to taste some jam, and 30% of this subgroup purchased some jam. In contrast, of the 242 customers who passed by the booth with the extensive selection, 60% of them stopped to taste some jam, yet only a mere 3% of this subgroup purchased some jam. So although more people stopped to taste the jam in the booth with the extensive selection, practically none of them made any purchases.
In the second experiment, university students were asked to rate and sample gourmet chocolates in the guise of a marketing survey. The students were randomly assigned either to a limited array of 6 different chocolates or to an extensive array of 30 different chocolates. Despite having many more options, the students assigned to the extensive array of chocolates reported being significantly less satisfied with their tasting experience compared to those assigned to the limited array of chocolates.
These and other similar experiments indicate that when the number of choices exceeds a certain threshold, choice motivation and outcome satisfaction decline resulting in decision paralysis and feelings of regret over lost opportunities. This phenomenon is formally known as choice overload and since most people in the world - particularly the west - have many more choices now compared to a few decades ago, choice overload is an unsettling thing.
Maximizers Versus Satisficers
In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2), author Barry Schwartz reveals that the majority of people may be classified into one of two groups depending upon the type of strategy they adopt when faced with a choice.
Those in the first group are called maximizers - people who only look for and accept the absolute "best" option out of a given number of options. Maximizers maintain an expectation that they will make the best choice possible; since it is not possible to explore all of the alternatives so as to know what the best choice might have been, maximizers often experience regret over the unexplored alternatives once they have made a decision. They look back and wonder if they really made the best choice. It gnaws away at them.
Those in the second group are called satisficers (a combination of "satisfy" and "suffice") - people who settle for the option that is "good enough" and don't worry about the possibility that there might be something better out there. Satisficers only care if a given choice meets a certain pre-defined standard; once that standard has been met, satisficers make the choice and forget about the unexplored alternatives. They don't look back and ruminate over the other choices that they never made. They move on.
Grab a pen and paper, have a look at the next few questions, and rate yourself using a scale of 1 to 7, from "completely disagree" to "completely agree."
(1) Whenever I’m faced with a choice, I try to imagine all the other possibilities, even ones that aren’t present at the moment. (2) No matter how satisfied I am with my job, it’s only right for me to be on the lookout for better opportunities. (3) When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am satisfied with what I’m listening to. (4) When I watch TV, I channel surf, scanning through the available options while attempting to watch one program. (5) I treat relationships like clothing: I expect to try a lot on before finding the perfect fit. (6) I often find it difficult to shop for a gift for a friend. (7) Renting videos is really difficult. I’m always struggling to pick the best one. (8) When shopping, I have a hard time finding clothing that I really love.
People whose average rating is greater than 4 are maximizers, those who rate 4 or less are satisficers (3). Where do you rate?
The Key To Choosing Wisely
In today's world of choice overload, maximizers are disadvantaged compared to satisficers. While the former spend more time and energy by seeking and evaluating more options compared to the latter, maximizers tend to be less pleased with the outcomes of their decisions compared to satisficers; in fact, the greatest maximizers are often the least happy with the results of their efforts (3). To a maximizer, it might appear that satisficers - since they do not spend vast amounts of time and energy pursuing that elusive best option - are content to choose mediocrity. Yet this is not so. Satisficers simply prefer standards over expectations - a standard denotes a level of quality or achievement (4) whereas an expectation denotes a belief that something is bound to happen (5). Standards can as low or as high as a satisficer wants them to be, even on the level of excellence if deemed necessary. Expectations, on the other hand, are illusory in that the thing being sought - that elusive best option - can only really be identified once all of the alternatives have been exhausted, a process that requires considerable amounts of time and energy and may well be impossible in a world beset by choice overload.
Being a satisficer with well-adjusted standards is the key to making wise choices in the pursuit of any goal. What is a well-adjusted set of standards? Ideally, standards should be set high enough such that holding on to them requires a worthwhile amount of effort, yet low enough so that at least some of them are practically achievable. The implication here is that if one's standards are set correctly, one ought to be experiencing both successes and failures in the pursuit of those standards - therefore if one is truly pursuing standards of personal excellence, a degree of failure is both critical and inevitable.
Maintain standards in life; forget expectations. If a particular standard has yet to be met by the options available, be patient and work towards it. If a particular standard is met by the options available, choose it and move on.
References (1) Iyengar SS, Lepper MR. 2000. When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79(6), 995-1006. (2) Schwartz B. 2009. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Harper Collins e-books. (3) Schwartz B. 2004. The Tyranny of Choice. http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bschwar1/Sci.Amer.pdf. (4) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/standard. (5) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expectation.