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Spoilt for choice and lost for an answer

A friend recently broke down in tears next to the breakfast cereal aisle at the grocery store and had to be led away by an embarrassed neighbour, who has since stopped taking her calls, writes Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Oct 18, 2008 23:41 IST
Sanchita Sharma

A friend recently broke down in tears next to the breakfast cereal aisle at the grocery store and had to be led away by an embarrassed neighbour, who has since stopped taking her calls. She later blamed it on the sheer number of breads and cereals available, which, it seems, made it impossible for her to reach a decision. “I suddenly couldn’t deal with choosing from a few score cereals, a dozen kinds of breads, innumerable spreads and cheeses, a few dozen toppings and cold cuts. I usually end up buying everything because I can’t make up my mind. That day I just couldn’t deal with going through the decision-making again,” she blubbered.

Personally, I like a lot of choice, but experts say more choices are not always better as the human ability to desire and manage choice is limited. A Columbia Business School study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also shows that providing too many choices — particularly when the differences between them are small — makes people feel overwhelmed and overloaded. They end up postponing decision.

The oddball behaviour of my friend, who takes snap decisions everyday as a senior executive at an ad agency, demonstrates that not everyone is equipped to cope with unnecessary options in everyday life: be it food brands offering more permutation-combinations for less, cellphones offering newer models, and universities offering better courses. Some experts say the choice overload initially appears desirable, but ends up adding to the stress of making ends meet as people are faced with choices at every step: from brands of toothpaste to career options for their children.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, says that too much choice makes people choose the familiar. He also argues that while the cumulative effect of all of these choices creates stress and anxiety, not everyone buckles under pressure. Schwartz categorises people into “Satisfiers” , those happy with the choice they have made, and “Maximisers”, those who want the very best.

My friend, the breakdown artist, is obviously a maximiser, who gets more stressed. Maximisers can choose only after they have examined all possibilities. They have a harder time making choices and regret their choices more. The solution? Spend time choosing only if it really impacts your life. If it’s just the colour of a new car, don’t worry so much about choosing the very best. You won’t notice the colour yourself after the first two months.

And what if the choice impacts your life? Make a choice anyway. To misquote Tennyson, “It is better to have chosen and got it wrong than not to have chosen at all.”