Too Many Choices and Decision-Fatigue

Twenty years ago there were about 7,000 items in your average grocery store. And then that seemed to be a lot to choose from.

In contrast, today the number is 50,000 or more. The number of choices for consumer products keeps increasing, and online shopping has contributed to a rapid increase.

According to some researchers, the average adult makes 12–15 decisions before 9 am. Barbara J. Sahakian & Jamie Nicole Labuzetta published a book on decision-making, Bad Moves: How Decision-Making Goes Wrong and the Ethics of Smart Drugs, in which they report an average adult makes about “35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day [in contrast a child makes about 3,000).” Brian Wansink and Jeffrey Sobal, writing in the journal Environment and Behavior report that the average male makes at least 200 decisions each day on just food alone.

All of this decision-making and choices can create anxiety, and this anxiety is increased by FOMO — the fear of missing out.

“Overchoice” or choice overload is a term first introduced by Futurist Alvin Tofler in his 1970 book, Future Shock, and means people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options.

Making a decision can become overwhelming to many people due to their anxiety about the many imagined potential outcomes and risks if they make the wrong or bad choice.

The research shows that it’s not just anxiety about potential bad choices. Having too many good choices can also be mentally exhausting because each option must be weighed against alternatives to select the best one.

Researchers say that the satisfaction of choices by number of options available can be described by an inverted “U” model. In this model, having no choice results in very low satisfaction. Initially more choices lead to more satisfaction, but as the number of choices increases it then peaks and people tend to feel more pressure, confusion, and potentially dissatisfaction with their choice.

Although larger choice sets can be initially appealing, smaller choice sets lead to increased satisfaction and reduced regret. Another component of overchoice is the perception of time. Extensive choice sets can seem even more difficult with a limited time constraint.

Examples of overchoice include increased college options, career options, and prospective romantic relationships. Many of these increased options can be attributed to modern technology. In today’s society we have easy access to more information, products and opportunities.

In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains how too much choice leads to four conditions that reduce our happiness. And they’re all rooted in “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out).

Many people who faced with a lot of desirable options have trouble making a decision, according to Thomas Saltsman and colleagues published in Biological Psychology, that used cardiovascular measures and fictional dating profiles to reach its conclusions.

Despite the apparent opportunities presented by a lot of options, the need to choose creates a “paralyzing paradox …. “You want to make a good choice, but feel like you can’t,” says Saltsman. “This combination of perceiving high stakes and low ability may contribute

to a deep-seated fear that one will inevitably make the wrong choice, which could stifle the decision-making process.”

To manage the anxiety and indecision, Saltsman says to consider the relative importance of the choice at hand.

“Choosing the wrong menu item for dinner or what to binge-watch is not going to define you as a person,” he says. “It may also be helpful to enter high-choice situations with a few clear guidelines of what you want from your desired option. Doing so may not only help scale down the number of possible choices, by eliminating options that do not meet your guidelines, but may also bolster confidence and trust in your ability to find a choice that meets your needs.”

Having a large number of choices seem like a great idea, according to one of Saltsman’s co-authors, Mark K. Seery. “We love having these choices, but when we’re actually faced with having to choose from among those countless options, the whole process goes south,” says Seery. “Research shows that, after the fact, people often regret their decision in these cases, but what our research suggests is that this kind of turn — the inherent paradox of liking choices and then being troubled by choices — happens almost immediately. “That transition is fascinating.”

For the research, the team had nearly 500 participants across three different experiments, two of which used psychophysiological measures. “We had participants reading through what were fictional dating profiles and asked them to consider their ideal partner,” says Saltsman. “Because we used psychophysiological measures, we wanted people faced with a choice that demanded consideration and had them actively engaged.”

Those measures include heart rate and how hard the heart is pumping. When people care more about a decision, Seery says, their heart rate increases and beats harder. Other measures, like how much blood the heart is pumping and the degree to which blood vessels dilate, indicate levels of confidence.

The results showed that when faced with a large number of profiles to choose from rather than a small number, participants’ hearts and blood vessels revealed that they experienced making their choice as being both more important and more overwhelming. This occurred during the deliberation process.

Having choices seems like an appealing situation that speaks to freedom and autonomy. But the emerging digital realities manifest in forums like online shopping and entertainment can be overwhelming.

Decision-Making Fatigue

Research suggests that the more decisions an individual makes in a short period of time, the more each decision decreases in quality. Therefore, a finite amount of space for mental exertion exists before quality takes a hit. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as decision fatigue.

Former President Obama touched on this concept in an interview with Vanity Fair: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” President Barack Obama talked about wearing only gray or blue suits while in office so he didn’t have to give too much thought to what he would wear. Steve Jobs was known for his black turtlenecks and jeans, and Mark Zuckerberg sports his iconic gray Brunello Cucinelli T-shirt.

Kathleen Vohs and colleagues published a study in Motivation and Science which examined the issue of having to make a lot of decisions and self-regulation. They concluded “decision making depletes the same resource used for self-control and active responding. Making choices led to reduced self-control (i.e., less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality of production.”

How to Fight Decision Fatigue

1. Make Fewer Decisions. Reduce the number of decisions you have to make every day, particularly minor ones. To do lists, priority lists and habit routines will help you do this.

2. Delegate Some of Your Decisions to Others. You don’t have to be responsible for everything. Trust others. Learn how to ask for help.

3. Use a Decision-Making Process for Making Decisions. There are a number of decision-making heuristics or matrixes available that will help you more easily analyze the factors that are going into your decision. Examples are the Eisenhower Matrix or Grid Analysis.

4. Make Important Decisions In the Morning (and Preferably Monday Mornings). Researchers have found the time of day impacts or judgment and ability to make the best decisions because as the day progresses, our cognitive function declines, particularly in late afternoons.

5. Limit Your Choices to Very Few. Having too many choices will cause indecision and stress, and create decision fatigue. That’s why it’s best to go food shopping with a list rather than aimlessly wandering the aisles with the hundreds of choices facing you.

6. Set Deadlines To Make Important Decisions. Decision-making fatigue can be exacerbated by procrastination. While it’s important to carefully reflect on the decision before hand, endless rumination will just make it worse. Avoid making decisions at the last minute. Also if a decision is connected to a long-range goal or plan, set short-term mini-decisions along the way so the pressure of a big one at the end doesn’t create stress.

7. Simplify Your Life. Busyness is a modern day disease, where every minute of every day is taken up with activities, many of them scheduled with little time for doing nothing and relaxing. Review your commitments and possessions and be diligent about pairing them down to the absolute necessary.

8. Develop a Habit and Routine System. As research has shown, developing a routine or habit system that you can follow for most things that are repetitive in your life can reduce stress and decision-making fatigue, rather than deciding anew every time you engage in that activity. James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is a great resource for this.

Follow me on Twitter: @raybwilliams

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others