Dr. Seuss on the Paradox of Choice
Ever been presented with a litany of options only to find yourself disappointed by the results? As Dr. Seuss shows, too many options is not always a good thing.
Growing up, I was a big fan of Dr. Seuss books – I Wish I Had Duck Feet and Green Eggs and Ham were personal favorites. My interest was renewed once I had kids. So I was thrilled when a previously unpublished Seuss book had been discovered.
What Pet Should I Get? tells the story of a brother and sister who are given the task of picking one pet to bring home from the pet store. This mission becomes increasingly daunting as they are confronted with more and more animals to choose from. Throughout the story a voice urges the kids to “Make up your mind.” And there lies the paradox of choice that we face everyday.
Paradox of choice is the idea that although abundance and variety are supposed to make us happier, when in reality they do not. According to Barry Schwartz’s research in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, abundance depletes our mental energy, sets unreasonably high expectations, and leaves us feeling unfulfilled. Put in simple terms, by buying the NFL cable package where you can watch every game, pre-game, and coverage, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. That indecision on Sunday when you are flipping between five games is the paradox of choice and it is ruining the football experience, not enhancing it. This is true in the workplace as well.
“Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically. “ – Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice
As leaders, we often delude ourselves into thinking that by providing a multitude of options, we are promoting engagement and buy-in amongst the team. However, as Barry stated in his TEDTalk, the overabundance of choices has two negative effects.
The first negative effect is that while you are intending to empower your team with a sense of freedom, too many possibilities produces a decision paralysis. With so many options, people find it difficult to choose anything. Just imagine sitting in a meeting where someone says, “I have 50 different ways to tackle our problem.” Are you going to sit and listen to a detailed list of 50 solutions? To be influential, we need to either be fully committed to one solution or give three to five selections for the team to weigh.
The second negative effect is that even if we overcome the paralysis and decide, we end up less satisfied with the choice. One reason is that with so many options, it becomes easy to imagine how a different choice could have been better. As a result, you begin to regret your selection before it even started.
Another reason why too many options leaves us dissatisfied is what economists call opportunity costs. Whenever you choose one thing, you are choosing not to do other things. Then when you see all the attractive features associated with the many alternatives, it makes what you’ve chosen less attractive.
Finally, too many selections create unsustainable expectations. There is no “perfect” but when you see a hundred options, anything you choose will inevitably increase your expectations. So when you compare what you got with what you expected, the result can only be disappointment.
“The secret to happiness — this is what you all came for — the secret to happiness is low expectations.” – Barry Schwartz, TEDTalk
Consider the paradox of choice the next time you are presenting ideas to your team. Don’t put them in a position where they are walking into a pet store with infinite possibilities and the instruction to pick one. Vet the numerous alternatives and present a limited number of choices. This does not diminish their freedom, nor does it underestimate their analytic abilities; it allows the chance to absorb the intricacies of each option and make a more informed decision. It also saves you the effort of having to say, “Make up your mind!”
Photo Credit: holland024 via Compfight cc