simple living

too many choices spoil the decision

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I’ve been having frequent bouts of decision paralysis lately. To name a few: what is the best exercise regime to start? (You know, anaerobic, aerobic – because if I’m going to start one then I want it to be the best.) What am I going to get the little fella for his birthday? (It has to be fun and educational and not plastic and keep him occupied and be inexpensive…and I haven’t got him anything yet.) Should I work one day a week or not? And so on and so forth.

Usually, when it comes to making a decision there are so many options that I often spend the time thinking ‘maybe I should have done…’ or I get so overwhelmed that I end up doing nothing.

It turns out that this isn’t so uncommon. The fact that we often spend so much time agonising over decisions is somewhat ironic considering how highly we value choice and how we equate it with personal freedom. In fact, our cultural assumption is something like ‘the more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have” [source].

Lots of choice is great, right? Yes and no. The fundamental right to choose how we live our lives is definitely essential for our well being. But do we need 40 varieties of toothpaste, and if so, which variety should we choose? Studies reveal that not only is too much choice so confounding that it can result in inaction, it can also be detrimental to our wellbeing.

Money for jam

Professor Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and author of ‘The Art of Choosing’ set up store displays with a range of  either twenty four or six varieties of jam. 60% of people were drawn to the larger range of jams compared to 40% stopping at the smaller display. However, from the small range of jams 30% of people made a purchase as compared to 3% viewing and sampling the 24 varieties. Professor Iyengar concluded that ‘people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating’ [source].

This conclusion is supported by a later study looking at retirement fund choices. The study found that the more fund choices a employer offered, the lower the participation rate, despite huge financial benefits and incentives for saving [source].

I saw evidence of this myself when I was a teenager working in a milk bar, where I had this conversation on a daily basis:

“Can I have a milkshake, please?”

“What flavour?”

“Ha? I don’t know. Whatever. You choose.”

If inaction was the only effect of too many choices, that wouldn’t be so bad (unless you were marketing jam). But studies have shown that having too many choices can also lead to increased stress, decreased satisfaction and therefore increased rates of depression.

Greater choice:

  • increases the burden of gathering information to make a wise decision
  • increases the likelihood that people will regret the decisions they make
  • increases the likelihood that people will anticipate regretting the decision they made, with the result
  • that they can’t make a decision at all increases the feeling of missed opportunities, as people encounter the attractive features of one option after another that they are rejecting
  • increases expectations about how good the chosen option should be…
  • increases the chances that people blame themselves when the choice has failed to live up to expectations… [source]

“…What happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.” [source].

As if this isn’t enough, studies have also shown that the actual act of making a decision depletes our short term cognitive ability. ‘People faced with numerous choices, whether good or bad, find it difficult to stay focused enough to complete projects, handle daily tasks or even take their medicine’ [source].

And here is an interesting side note: we are culturally trained to expect infinite variations of possibility. Professor Iyengar in her TED Talk describes how she offered study participants in the former USSR a choice of seven different types of soft drink (pictured above). One participant made the offhand comment that there was only actually one choice: soda. Surprised by this, Professor Iyengar asked the other participants how many drinks were on offer and they all had the same response: one. When they were offered juice and water as well as the seven types of soft drink, their response changed. Three drinks were now on offer. Professor Iyengar compares this to westerners where many of us convinced that there is a distinct difference between Coke and Pepsi.

How to choose when there are too many choices

So how do we navigate a reality where there are dozens of choices in even the most mundane of things like what to eat for breakfast? My own solution to making decisions when the options are overwhelming is twofold: if the decision isn’t important then the first choice is good enough. If the decision is more important then I reassess my purpose and priorities. What is most important right now? How does the decision I make align with my values? What are the long term affects of the decision I make?

It turns out that this isn’t such a bad solution. The studies showing that the more choices there are, the harder it is to choose have found one exception: people find making a decision easier when they have an articulated preference [source]. Researchers found that when people have a defined preference or purpose, they choose the first item that fits and not worry about the rest. It’s a case of ‘good enough is good enough’ as opposed to ‘maybe I could do better.’

In the face of competing options it pays to  selectively limit the field by letting your values and priorities filter the choices. Focus on what you need rather than looking at all the options available. Find the option that fits your needs, ignoring all others. If you didn’t know you wanted something, then you don’t need it.

Once you have limited the field, it is easier to make a decision from the remaining options. Pick one. Pick something. Then let go of what could have been. Forget it. Enjoy what is.

And of course, you can always change your mind.


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  1. They say a good doctor isn’t the one who makes the right diagnosis after taking time to consider the options. Its someone who makes a decision, starts treatment but is prepared to modify his decision as further evidence is found.

    I’ve found this works with most things.



  2. I have to agree agree with that. I would want a confident and firm direction rather than a doctor who ‘seems’ unsure. I had a doctor the other day who, quite seriously, Googled the diagnosis while we were sitting waiting for his opinion. Could have done that at home and saved myself $90!

  3. I loved this article because I’ve experienced choice issues first hand.
    I lived in Cuba for 3 years with a University study group. As you can imagine choice in a communist country is an extreme luxury and not common. When you went grocery shopping there you had the choice of buying one loaf of bread or two. You didn’t have 12 brands to choose from. One brand and if you were lucky, and even luckier if there was more than one to buy. When I returned to the U.S. the first time I went into a grocery store I remember standing in front of the bread section and having anixety over WHAT brand to purchase. There were so many!

    1. Thanks McKenna, that’s a really interesting comparison that you make. I’m thinking maybe a happy medium between the two would be best?

  4. As someone who suffers from the inability to make decisions on a daily basis, I loved this blog. Have you seen the TED talk ‘The Paradox of Choice”? Twas my life.

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