Skip to content

Paralysis By Too Many Choices

I really hate the decision-making process. Lately I feel like I’m in a state of paralysis due to inability to pick anything, because there’s too many choices to deal with and I’m afraid that somehow I will make the wrong one.

In a Consumer Behavior class I took last year with Professor Small, one of our course readings was a book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. It had many interesting insights, but the primary takeaway of the book is that we as consumers are overburdened with too many choices. The ensuing result is that we find ourselves unable to process the decisions and arrive at a choice without a lot of mental anguish.

True! Oh so ridiculously true. Schwartz at one point talks about two different processes on which to make decisions: maximizing and satisficing. Maximizers try to make best and most optimal decision among all possible choices, which leads to a long and exhausting search through the many options which exist. Satisficers operate differently. Instead, they define their requirements and choose the first option which meets those requirements. Suppose you have three choices, A-B-C, evaluated in this order. A satisficer would have minimum criteria of acceptability, and proceed evaluatively through each option and pick the first one that she finds that meets these baseline requirements.

In contrast, the maximizer would go through and evaluate all three A, B and C and choose the best out of the three. So, if C were better than B but both were acceptable, the satisficer would choose B because it was the first one he evaluated. The maximizer would choose C because after considering all possible choices she would pick the optimal.

OK, great if you have only three choices, but imagine if you had one hundred! Imagine trying to choose the “best” women’s shampoo out of the whole rack! Instead, we consumers tend to come up with easy decision heuristics which determine which brand we buy in the end (e.g., expert reviews, past experience, brand awareness, et al.) Sometimes this is a highly efficient mechanism for us to make smart decisions, but there are also lots of ways that marketers can manipulate this. That’s a whole different discussion though.

From this model, I have found that I have huge maximizing tendencies. I am one of those people that takes months to buy anything that feels remotely high-involvement. If there existed a Latin word (and here I go coining one), I would be Emptor Maximissima — the most maximizing buyer. And this is why I am currently delaying all my big purchase decisions for my apartment and feeling quite miserable about buying a car, bathroom rugs, various pieces of furniture, real estate, etc., etc.

Ada Chen