In the 20th century, certain neuropsychology researchers started to question our brain’s rationality — and therefore reliability — when making decisions. However, the intrinsic value of choice itself is little questioned.
The idea that freedom of choice is fundamentally desirable for individuals is not only attractive, but it also structures our society. It now represents the foundation of Western culture, established on free trade, capitalism, and self-determination. In other words, a culture arranged around choices.
More is less
In 2000, social psychology researcher Sheena Iyengar first started to rock the boat by publishing a study titled, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?”. She questions the benefits of individual choices on our wellbeing and motivation, a relationship that until then was considered self-evident: the more options we have, the better we think we feel.
The idea that freedom of choice is fundamentally desirable for individuals is not only attractive, but it also structures our society.
Through three experiments performed in American supermarkets, she seriously challenges this hypothesis, showing that an abundance of choice is not always a guarantee of satisfaction.
And even that satisfaction tends to decrease when there are too many options.
The most well-known of these experiments is probably the one involving jam. Iyengar and her colleague Mark Lepper had the idea of offering a jam tasting to customers in a large American store. For the first experiment, they offered six different jams. For the second, they offered 24.
The results were surprising: the tables offering 24 different options attracted more potential clients, confirming the idea that the more options customers see on offer, the more they are attracted to the tasting stand. However, simply being drawn to the stand did not mean they actually made a purchase: in fact, only 3% of clients who went to the table with 24 jams ended up buying one or more jars, versus 30% of those who went to the table with six jars.
Researchers have reproduced the experiment with other products and come to the same conclusion: people who are offered fewer options find it easier to decide and take action. But that is not all: people with fewer options at their disposal are generally more satisfied with their purchase than those with a lot of alternatives to choose from, which implies that having too many choices is not only paralysing, it’s also frustrating.
In a country like the US where freedom of choice is seen as all-important and represents the basis of capitalism, this study challenged the ideals of American culture, with major repercussions: while an ever-greater range of choices may seem desirable, it is clear that it does not make us happier.
Faced with a large number of options, the brain not only has trouble grasping all the information, but it is at risk of being paralysed and therefore may put off the decision, or even not make it at all. This is what happened with the clients at the 24-jam table.
Faced with a large number of options, the brain not only has trouble grasping all the information, but it is at risk of being paralysed and therefore may put off the decision, or even not make it at all.
The implications of these discoveries are not only interesting for supermarkets and their suppliers, but also for more meaningful personal decisions. For example, how can we choose a partner when thousands of profiles are available on Tinder? How can we choose a job, a house, a holiday destination or even a pair of shoes, when the possibilities are limitless and all more or less equal?
By flooding ourselves with options, making the field of possibilities infinite or almost, our liberal ideology throws us into the world like kids in a candy store: with so many potential options available, we go from a state of wonder to a state of stress, followed by a state of frustration. In the end, we are incapable of choosing a treat, for fear of not choosing the best one.
What if it were sometimes preferable to have no choice?
Not only can our attachment to having the choice cause us harm, as its pressure can be overwhelming, but this attachment can also turn out to be a very bad ally.
In Stumbling on Happiness, American psychologist and professor Daniel Gilbert explains how much our level of satisfaction falls when we know that we can change our minds or go back on our choices.
Many experiments performed by him over several years actually show that people who are asked to make a definitive choice — of a car, an object or even a photo chosen from a range of others — tend to be more satisfied with their choice than those who are able to go back on their decision.
In other words, people whose choices are irreversible show themselves to be happier with said choices than those whose choices can be challenged. And what is more, this is all at a subconscious level, as before taking part in the experiment, participants declared a preference for options that can be modified, confirming that they were much more comfortable with the idea of making a temporary choice than a definitive one.
Once again, Gilbert’s work shows that most of us tend to believe that not only is it preferable to have choice, but also to have it for as long as possible. But what we don’t realise is that, paradoxically, this luxury is detrimental to our satisfaction.
In other words, as Gilbert himself writes, “we can easily imagine the benefits that freedom will provide to us, but we seem blind to the joys that it can sabotage”.
According to him, a plausible explanation to our short-sightedness and inconsistencies is that subconsciously, we are better at finding a satisfactory explanation for situations we are stuck in than for those we can get ourselves out of.
When we aren’t happy with a situation we can change, we just have to do so — we can return an item of clothing that we end up not liking, vote for another candidate in the next elections, announce to the young man we met three days ago that actually we’re not ready to get into anything, etc.
But when we’re stuck with a decision we can’t change — holidays already underway, an unfortunate tattoo, a badly behaved dog (or husband), etc. — the only thing we can change is the way we live with it and deal with it in our daily life.
What’s more, this ability to accept our lot and come to terms with it explains why we often feel more at ease once the cards are dealt. As Gilbert writes:
We cannot make the best of our fate if it is not inescapably, unavoidably and irreversibly ours. If a decision is definitive, and the die is cast, very surprisingly, this will help us find meaning, provide an acceptable explanation, or even like it.American psychologist and professor Daniel Gilbert
Why we cherish choice
What both these studies show us is that while our yearning for freedom is partly innate, our attachment to abundance and permanence of choice is also the result of cultural evolution. We are culturally programmed, in a certain way, to think that freedom of choice will bring us love, prosperity and satisfaction.
It was part of the magnificent promise made by the constitutions of Western countries, dating back to the 18th century, which proclaimed that freedom and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental rights. It was the promise underlying the huge post-war social, cultural, and economic liberation.
More recently, it was the promise of the internet, low-cost flights, and social media: how can we not be happy when everything is possible and available?
Because we have been raised to cherish freedom, combined with an abundance of options, we have built a world with infinite possibilities. Unfortunately, as beautiful as this promise is, it can also turn out to be paralysing and counter-productive.
Not only are we no longer able to easily make a choice, consumed by the fear of missing out on something that might be better, but we condemn ourselves to be eternally dissatisfied, questioning our choices rather than our attitudes at each moment of doubt: if we can break up and find a new partner with a few clicks, why make an effort to build the best relationship possible? If we can quit risk-free at the first sign of conflict, why make the effort to try and get past it? If we can always pursue a better choice elsewhere, what use is it to try and make the best of our choices?
The recent research mentioned in this article forces us to question our fierce attachment to choice by challenging the idea that the more possibilities and options we have at our disposal, the more chances we have to be happy.
And what is even more troubling is that it challenges the consequences of this mix-up: endless choice and possibilities do not make us happier, just more spoiled.
This article is an excerpt adapted from the book “Je choisis donc je suis: comment prenons-nous les grandes décisions de notre vie”, published by Flammarion in May 2021.