Traditional thinking of choices is that the more options one has to choose from the better off the chooser will be. The normative reasoning goes like this: if there are more options then one of them should be in accordance with the needs of the chooser. The chooser is well informed, can process all information available and she knows best what is good for her. In principle this is true that out of many option one is close to the optimal. At the same time, this reasoning ignores the most important part namely the act (process) of making a choice.
What happens when one is faced with choosing out of a very large (let’s say 100) set of options is very important from the perspective of the choice itself and its outcome, namely satisfaction.
The first thing that is happening is that when faced with many options (or with fewer options about which the chooser knows nothing about) is cognitive overload. In simpler language it means that the person who chooses is overwhelmed with information that is difficult to process. When our working memory is overloaded we tend to move to a way of thinking that is associative and un-critical. In easier to understand language our reasoning machine (computer-like brain) is switched off and our “bird-brain” takes over.
Decisions made by this “bird-brain” are very likely to be erroneous if they are not about things that we are super familiar with and or things that we are hard-wired by evolution to be good at such as picking up the best tasting jam.
We might think that we are very good at making decisions about many things and to a certain extent that is true. In modern life, however, we are faced with making decisions about things that are completely unfamiliar with and have nothing to do with our evolutionary hard-wiring. We have to make choices about cars, financial products, central heating and power tools. Apart from a hand-full of people who are highly learned in the features of these items, the rest of us are faced with immense dilemmas.
When using our “bird-brain” we tend to make bad choices and having more options to choose from makes the “bird-brain” to take over. In brief, when we are overloaded with information we tend to use rules of thumb (heuristics in a more sophisticated language) that are very likely to make a suboptimal choice.
Another thing that is happening when faced with (many) choices is the occurrence of regret. Regret comes in two forms: anticipated and experienced regret. Experienced regret is, as the name says, the actual feeling of regret… that feeling that we could have done otherwise and things would have been better. Anticipated regret is when we know that we might experience regret. You have all heard the phrase “You will regret it later”… People are aware of the possibility of experiencing regret at a later time and act in order to avoid the actual miserable experience of regretting something.
The more choices we have in front of us the more we think that other options could be better than the one(s) we are considering and subsequently we think that we might regret our choice. This could lead to making not so good choices but also to not making a choice or postponing the choice.
A very nice example of regret coming into play is the following scenario. A firm decides to reward the best performing employee with a vacation. The firm could simply pick up a destination for the worthy employee and his or her significant other and that would be it. But the HR officer that is handling this project is a believer in the idea that people are better off making their own choices. Unfortunately she can’t set up too many choices, but she is offering two options, namely Paris and Rome. Assuming that a vacation in Paris and one in Rome are overall equally attractive, the hard working employee would be able to choose the thing that best fits his or her needs.
What do you think it is going to happen with the employee that earned his vacation in Paris? The answer is quite simple (assuming that this person has not yet visited Rome) and it is that for the entire vacation there will be thoughts coming through her mind like “I wonder what would have been like if we went to Rome instead?”. Moreover, if something unpleasant happens in Paris, which it does for most tourists, she will think that for sure the unpleasant thing would not have happened in Rome.
In brief, when faced with a choice we will always think how it would have been if we would have chosen one of the other options. Before making the choice we will anticipate regret and after making the choice we would experience regret.
In addition to this if our choice is reversible the amount of regret experienced would be higher. When making a choice and anticipating regret, one option to manage regret is to ensure that the choice you made is reversible. However, if the choice is reversible you will constantly think “should I change the option?” and this will lead to less satisfaction and more worries.
In the case of the worthy employee who chose the vacation to Paris and assuming that at any time during the vacation she could simply “go to Rome” for the remainder of the vacation, this possibility to reverse her decision would be a huge source of unease. She would be thinking “Paris is not exactly what I’ve expected and I’m sure Rome is better… maybe I should go to Rome for the next 3 days, but if I do so, I will have to give up on what I still have to see in Paris and I would not have time to visit Rome properly… oh… what should I do??” Is that something you want to have on your mind during a vacation?
To sum up, having choices is not in itself bad. At the same time having a lot of choices and or having choices that are reversible has downsides for our satisfaction and wellbeing.