The Paradox of Choice

More is better, right? Not really. Barry Schwartz has written an entire book on the subject, entitled The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less. In his book, Schwartz highlights two major drawbacks to having more choice:

  1. More options create decision paralysis
  2. We are ultimately less satisfied with the choices we make

More options create decision paralysis

Daniel Kahneman, another psychologist, is most well known for writing Thinking: Fast and Slow which popularized a dual process model explaining perception and decision making in two distinct systems:

  • System 1
  • System 2

Not exactly creative names, but they serve their purpose.

System 1
This is your unconscious mind. System 1 is responsible for things like: [I] determining the presence of danger (e.g. someone throws something at you and you instinctively reach out to catch it before it hits you), [II] determining normality of circumstance (e.g. a purple chicken is not normal and would immediately trigger a handoff to System 2, but seeing a taxi downtown induces no  particular response),  and [III] identifying and categorizing information based on historical data (e.g. when you’re girlfriend responds “No. Everything is fine”, there’s a fight brewing). System 1 is essentially the lens through which you view the world. It does not add to your cognitive load and requires no conscious input from you in order to make these judgements about the world around you.

System 2
This is your conscious mind. System 2 is engaged when you [I] make deliberate choices between multiple options or [II] reason and think critically. Studies have linked a decrease in blood sugar to critical decisioning and went on to prove that the brain uses glucose in order to perform System 2 tasks. There is literally a fuel source that is required in order to think and reason critically.

This is one reason why decision paralysis occurs when you are presented with too many options. Having to reason between multiple options is a System 2 function and requires fuel. Your body has a limited amount of that fuel and you have already been engaging System 2 for other tasks during the day. At some point, you are likely to “run out of fuel”. When this happens, decisions take more effort on your part and you begin to shut down. You experience decision fatigue. Each subsequent task you perform under fatigue will be more and more taxing.

Taking breaks between resource-intensive tasks, grabbing a light snack, or finding ways to limit the amount of choice you are faced with will all help to mitigate the paralysis that comes from decision fatigue.

We are ultimately less satisfied with the choices we make

In his Ted Talk, Schwartz describes this concept using an analogy: buying jeans. Forty years ago, there was only ONE jean, so he would walk into the store and buy his size and walk out. If it was a bad purchase, what could he do? There weren’t any other options, so it wasn’t his fault. He made the best choice possible. Now, when he walks into the store, there are ONE HUNDRED different types of jeans: low cut, slim fit, boot cut, and many more. If he makes a bad purchase decision now, it’s obviously his fault. He could have very easily found a better fitting pair of jeans, because they definitely existed somewhere in all of that choice.

The result is that, even if we make the absolute best choice, we will still usually find something to regret. This stems from our increase in expectations. We expect perfection, so anything less than perfection doesn’t meet our expectations and anything that is perfect never exceeds them. When we experience this buyer’s remorse or cognitive dissonance, those feelings are compounded by every other option that was available at the time the decision was made.

So, not only does having more choice take an exponential toll on us while making the decision,
we are far less likely to be satisfied with the result.

 Choice in the Workplace

I have a friend who works in academics centered around organizational psychology. One of his chief frustrations is that he feels like academia has so much information and there is no little application or dissemination of that knowledge in the real world. So let’s talk about how we can use the paradox of choice to our advantage:

  • Create choice-minimal workflow
  • Use framing to your advantage
  • Avoid scheduling important meeting before meals

Choice-Minimal Workflow

Tim Ferriss, author and bio-hacker, is a big proponent of a Choice-Minimal Lifestyle. It’s all about finding ways to constrict options for choices that don’t matter so that you are not wasting resources deciding what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, what to do after work, etc. In the workplace, though, these choices aren’t as insignificant. The same principle applies: limit choices and it will make decisions easier. This will, in turn, increase your output or your team’s output.

When making decisions within your team, limit your options as much as possible. I like to cast a really wide net in the beginning while I’m still doing paper sketches, then quickly combine those into the top 2-4 ideas. More than four experiences is too many to decide between with a team, I usually try to keep it to two.

When presenting options to stakeholders never present more than three and that third option should only exist to frame the first two, but I’ll go into that more later. Keep in mind that your leadership team or your clients have likely already had to make several really hard decisions today. They might already be experiencing decision fatigue and if you don’t want that to become decision paralysis, you need to carefully curate the information you put in front of them.


Newspapers make most of their money off of advertising. Historically, that was done in print, but print is dying and this newspaper wanted to find a way to get print subscriptions up. So they changed their pricing model:

  • A – Online Only – $5/month
  • B – Print Only – $15/month
  • C – Print and online – $15/month

If only options A and B were presented, most people in this age would choose A, without even thinking about it. But we have such an aversion to loss that we view spending money to save money as a way to avoid loss (Kahneman did a lot of work on this as well).

Think about the last time Steam had a sale. Do I need any of those games? Probably not, but some of them are 80% off and I’m willing to buy it on the off chance that I might want it some day, just to avoid the loss of having to pay full price at a later date.

Option C clearly frames the first two options as inferior and print subscriptions went way up for the newspaper, allowing them to continue gaining ad revenue from both channels.

Use this to your advantage when presenting options to a client:

If both A and B are solid options, then make C an inferior option that shares some aspects of either A or B; let’s say A. Subconsciously, viewers will see the similarity to A and choose A because A is clearly superior to C. This plays on cognitive biases in how we process information and can help them arrive at a decision sooner.

If you strongly prefer B to A, then present C as a superior option to B that includes some small aspect of A to placate proponents of A. This is what proved to be so successful for the newspaper.


We know that the brain uses glucose to make decisions. Anecdotally, there was a study that analyzed the decisions that a group of parole judges made. They judges were several factors (I think it was 3x, but it’s been a while since I read that study) more likely to approve a case for parole first thing in the morning and right after lunch. They were least likely to approve cases for parole right before lunch and at the end of the day. When we are faced with a decision and don’t have the ability to expend resources on it, we tend to default to the standard or safe decision.

We’ve all had experiences with a manager/CEO at some point where they just got frustrated and unilaterally decided to stay right where they were, rather than chance taking a risk by moving forward.

If you need to get something approved or finalize an important decision, schedule that meeting first thing in the morning or right after lunch for the best results.