The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice

2020 will be remembered as the year our freedom was lost to the corona crisis. Autonomy is one of three fundamental needs for wellbeing in Ryan & Deci’s self-determination theory, alongside a sense of competence and relatedness. You could think of it as a modern version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

One upside to the loss is no longer getting stressed by an abundance of options in the coffee shop.  Shall I have the cappuccino or a flat white? Or maybe tea?  You would think that having more options would increase the chances of finding something you really want and to be satisfied with your choice. But in fact the opposite seems to be true. The paradox is that having more choices can send you into overwhelm and have a negative impact on your wellbeing. Prof. Barry Schwartz calls this the tyranny of choice but in my household it’s known as the tyranny of hair dye. Which shade is going to look best on zoom?

People who get caught up in the stress of this are known as ‘maximisers’. They want the best and like to take their time to weigh up all the options, but often feel regret when their choice fails to live up to expectations. They get the best bargains but it comes at a cost, because they often suffer from perfectionism and compare themselves to others they think are better off.  The antidote is to behave more like a ‘satisficer’ (the word combines ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’). This is someone who settles for good enough, when they find something that meets their minimum criteria. It’s very easy to go through life as a maximiser but I know a professor of psychology whose quality of life improved the moment he traded being a maximiser for a satisficer. It’s something I choose to remember not only with hair dye but in other areas of life.

The tyranny of choice is one of the barriers to wellbeing we explore at the Positive Psychology Masterclass. Others include:

Hedonic adaptation: This is the ‘taking for granted’ phenomenon, aka the hedonic treadmill, where we get used to the source of our pleasure, so that the novelty starts to wear off. The second time you have that delicious dish on the menu is never as good as the first time. Having said that, I know the next time I visit one of my favourite restaurants I’ll definitely get a boost to my wellbeing, because I’ll be experiencing ‘gratitude by contrast’.  This is when a need is fulfilled after a period of absence, as we’re experiencing with the pandemic. 

The Negativity Bias: The brain is wired to notice what’s wrong before we notice what’s right. It’s part of our survival mechanism. helping to keep us safe, but it does interfere with our experience of positivity. What’s wrong is strong. Our attention defaults to noticing the negative which is why we need to work a bit harder to notice, appreciate and savour the good things in life.

The Comparison Trap: We have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others, although usually it’s to people we consider to be better off than we are, which can leave us feeling inadequate and trying to keep up with the Jones. Studies have shown that people would rather take a job where they earn more than others than a role that pays more money overall. Happiness is relative. 


The Positive Psychology Masterclass returns for its first ever online course in July. The Foundations course will run over 4 days: Fri-Sat July 17-18 and July 24-25 0930 BST to 1230 BST daily. Booking form July 2020




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