Why having too many choices undermines you
“I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. But many others were also in the same place. The difference was that I took action.” – Bill Gates
We humans are not very good at making decisions. It may be some consolation to learn that our ineptitude stems from several million years of genetic coding. During the Paleolithic era, around three million years ago, humankind did not have innumerable choices to make. Humans hunted to eat and to survive, and when they finally killed an elephant or a mammoth, that was all they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until it was completely gone. Environmental and socio-economic impacts were limited to only their own extinction. Reasoning did not really enter our lives until the last few thousand years, and the rationalization of choices and consequences came along in the last few hundred years as technology, politics and policing unveiled a truly interconnected world and the significance of choices became no longer personal, but communal, legal, regional and global.
Between 1975 and 2008 the average number of products in supermarkets alone rose from nine thousand to almost fifty thousand. Today, we are even more inundated with options, but our brains have not evolved to be much different from those of our early counterparts. Today’s science has confirmed the very thing many of us experience regularly—that it takes significant cognitive energy to make thoughtful decisions.
With so many choices before us, making decisions can become a source of significant mental stress, the effects of which can be dramatic. In his book The Paradox of Choice, published in 2004, author Barry Schwartz uses the term “choice overload” to explain that our minds simply cannot cope with the vast number of options. That inability to cope leads us often to feelings of suffocation, exhaustion, and anxiety—in addition to decreased satisfaction when we do make decisions.
How do we do a better job of rewiring our neural pathways so that we can trust our most basic choices to align with the outcomes we most desire? Below are 6 Secrets for making Amazing Choices:
- Avoid homophily. Homophily names our tendency to associate with others who are like us. By widening your view and being well informed, you can actually aid decision-making by helping you better weigh options against one another and even anticipate options so as not to be overwhelmed by them. Hack: read news from different sources and perspectives to make your own informed viewpoint on important matters.
- Set clear priorities. Having a clear goal or outcome in mind helps determine what would constitute a minimum for satisfaction. Assess how relevant any choice really is to you. Hack: focus your energy into the BIG choices that have live altering outcomes (marriage, job, family, health) and worry less about the little choices.
- Steady your emotions. Try to let strong emotions subside before making major decisions. A calm heart contributes to a level head. Hack: before any big decision, sleep on it, take a walk, get fresh air and consult an advisor. Never email or post socially in anger before reflecting on it.
- Ask. We make decisions about how to act based on the available information and options. The key here is to avoid making assumptions in situations where simply asking for other info creates more and better possibilities. Hack: it is a sign of strength to ask for help and directions 🙂
- Assess the risk of inaction. The risk assessment of not doing something is as critical as any assessment of the benefits of doing it. Hack: Ask yourself what is the full opportunity cost of not acting before deciding to do nothing?
- Don’t second-guess yourself. Once your choice is made, make good on it. Move immediately to action. Hack: set SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) to move forward and appoint an accountability partner to make sure you don’t procrastinate.
Now for the business strategy on choice! If you company is offering goods and services to the public – you are essentially presenting potential customers with a variety of options from which to choose. How do you help potential clients overcome a tendency toward decision paralysis? The answer to this question dictates the outcomes for most of the largest consumer brands in the world. In 2015, the Journal of Consumer Psychology presented an analysis of choice studies to help determine the extent to which reducing choice actually boosts sales. They determined four scenarios in which reducing the number of alternatives motivates consumers to make purchases:
- Quick and easy. Reducing the number of choices helps when people want to make a quick and easy decision, for example, at a gas station or convenience market. Offering fewer and simpler choices helps people when they need to move on to other things.
- Complex products. When the product is complex, like a healthcare plan or a riding lawn mower; fewer the choices result in higher conversion and sales.
- Difficult to compare. Fewer options facilitate decision-making when it’s difficult to compare alternatives. Imagine the difference between researching alternatives on the internet (where product comparisons are ubiquitous) versus standing in the cereal aisle, attempting to read the backs of twenty boxes in order to compare their nutrition values.
- No clear preferences. When your product is one for which consumers don’t already have a clear preference, or they lack knowledge of the product, less is once again more. Customer behavior, cohort segmentation and research can identify what single best value proposition to offer and market.
Insofar as our life choices – I close in reminding you of all the incredible things “that might have been” had you just taken action / or simply asked (think of asking the right girl to dance, or bought that crazy thing called bitcoin at $500; etc) Choice should always be thought of as an action—in the words of Sartre, “If I do not choose, I am still choosing.”
To learn more about our research on decision making and choice overload, make the choice now to our website at bermudaclarityinstitute.com.