By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Have you ever spent hours trying to decide on a new insurance plan, only to give up and not buy one at all? Our modern culture presents us with an infinite array of choices. Dr. Vishton explains how too many choices leads to decision deadlock.
Avoiding Analysis Paralysis
Generally, the fewer options we have, the easier it is for us to make a decision and avoid analysis paralysis. This was demonstrated by Columbia Business professor Sheena Iyengar’s study where people presented with fewer choices for jam were much more likely to buy jam.
The basic effect of Iyengar’s study has been found in the domain of many decisions more important than jam. For example, many employers offer different retirement plans for their workers. In some cases, they offer thousands of different options, and in other cases, only a few.
When there are fewer options, several things happen. First, the employees are far more likely to actually make a choice. When there are many options with many different features to consider, there’s a sense that substantial time should be invested in the decision.
Many of us believe we should be like Thomas Edison, who systematically worked through hundreds of options in order to come up with a really great light bulb. Faced with many choices, most people overestimate how much consideration is really needed, and then underestimate how much time would be required to perform all that detailed investigation. The result is that in many cases, it just doesn’t get done.
Effects of Too Many Options
In one 2003 study conducted by Iyengar, an employer was studied who made matching contributions to their employees’ retirement funds. By delaying enrollment in a program by several months, the employees forfeited those months’ contributions.
Making any choice, even if they made a random one, would sometimes be better than making no choice at all. This study shows that limiting the options that you consider will increase the chance that a choice is made.
Second, there’s evidence that, as our reasoning about choices grows more complex and more extended in time, various biases would have more of an effect, not less. The temporal discounting errors that people make, for instance, will tend to grow larger as a decision process is extended, leading to less optimal decisions.
We humans are also overly risk averse when we consider the possibility of losses. As a reasoning process is extended in time, risk aversion increases, and not in a good way. In Iyengar’s studies, when a very large number of plans are offered, people are more likely to choose plans that are somewhat lower in risk but much lower in terms of return.
Third, people tend to be less satisfied with the choices that they’ve made. Continuing to ponder options not chosen can lead to a lower satisfaction, especially when there’s a potential to change that choice in the future.
The more choices there are, the more roads not taken there are to ponder, and the greater that dissatisfaction becomes. Of course, these problems may compound one another.
Benefits of Choice Reduction
If a choice never gets made, you will be deeply unsatisfied. Based on a wide range of evidence like this, we can conclude that there is such a thing as too much choice. By reducing the number of options you consider, you can decide faster, better, and more happily.
In addition to cutting the number of options that you’re going to consider down to a small number quickly, Iyengar and her colleagues also recommend making the consequences of decisions concrete. For example, in studies in which people are asked to specifically imagine what their life will be like in the distant future, they tend to save and invest more.
Therefore, simplifying the decision-making process helps you to avoid analysis paralysis and see your decisions through to the end.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.