Choice is a good thing, right?

Last Saturday, I organised a brunch party at my place. I wanted to cook something fresh, summery, nice and easy to do. I was quite out of ideas, so I thought I’d go to the supermarket and let myself get inspired by the richness of products in the supermarket aisles.

To start, I need bread for a brunch. Should I get white bread? Wheat bread or whole grain bread? Or maybe rye bread? Do people prefer bagels for brunch? Or French bread to make it sound more, you know, bon ton? Et voila’ people… Help yourself to some warm French bread.

Then, juice, yes. I need to pick up some juices. What do people prefer? Orange juice, definitely. Orange juice with bits or no bits? Or maybe apple juice, or pineapple, or grapefruit? What about carrot juice? Or, hear this, guava juice? Sounds tropical. It’s not that easy after all.

That’s it, a salad. I think it’s perfect. A rich salad full of plenty and tasty ingredients finished up with a delicate salad dressing that completes and satiates all types of palates. I think the supermarket offers approximately 120 types of different salad dressing. I’m not an expert when it comes to salad dressing. What should I choose? Let’s see, Ranch dressing? Caesar dressing, or Italian dressing? Island dressing, interesting. Why not a balsamic vinaigrette? Or how about honey mustard dressing? Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Blue cheese dressing or sesame ginger dressing? There is even a Russian dressing, how peculiar. How am I supposed to know how all of these options might taste?

I do my best, but still much undecided. I’ve got expectations now, I expect that the choices that I’ve made, out of all these options, are the best ones. When you have such an abundance of choice, how can you choose wrongly? Choice, and the possibility to have many, sets us free, it increases our well-being. But I got home exhausted. My level of ‘anxiety’ increased from minus 10 to a five at least. I think it’s unconscious, yet absurd, we don’t realise it. But how many times have we walked around and around a supermarket, contemplating what to buy, picking up something and putting it down a minute later, and then picking it up again. It’s certainly not relaxing. It’s a sort of ‘stress’; and first, a very simple task as grocery shopping can become a lot more painful that it should be, and secondly, how many minutes of wasted contemplation do we spend deciding what crisps to buy, what breakfast cereals we favour this month, or what shampoo would make our dry hair smooth and shining again?

The same draining experience can hit us when we’re deliberating between TV shows, career paths, pension plans, pairs of jeans or fancy dresses, or even lifetime partners, and the amount of options available to us can be overwhelming.

Have you ever felt this way?

We live in a time in which freedom and autonomy are valued above everything else and in which “expanded opportunities for “self-determination” are regarded as a sign of the psychological well-being of individuals and the moral well-being of the culture”, according to Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist. However, choice, and the freedom and autonomy that come with it, can become too excessive, and “unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis”.

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of choices increase, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.” (Source: Doing Better but Feeling Worse: The Paradox of Choice)

For example, think about when you’re trying to book a hotel online, anticipating a relaxing holiday somewhere far away. How on earth is it possible that a pleasurable plan becomes an existential mission? The possibilities of regret are significant, you know.

So what can we do? What do consumers (we) really want?

It might not come as a surprise, but this is the ugly truth of the paradox of choice. Do we really want (or need) all these choices to feel free, good and happy in and with our lives? In a time with such an abundance of choice, we actually need to wise up and master it.

An article once cited that “too much advertising is digital suicide”. It’s crucial to really understand our consumers’ preferences, discovering their inner needs to avoid bombarding them with things they don’t need or don’t know if they do. Without the provision of a ‘filter’ of difference that helps us to stand out, we could be one in an ocean of brands, and this could indeed result in paralysis and procrastination.

So, once again, is choice still a good thing… right?

I’d conclude that the fact that some choice is good doesn’t mean that more choice is better. Up to you, but choose me the best salad now.

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About Author

Marta Besio

Recently graduating with a Psychology degree, Marta landed here at OMD UK as insight intern and is now Grad Insight Executive. As a psychologist, Marta loves to really get to know people, looking to understand what drives their behaviours and decision-making, either consciously or unconsciously, and often through the lens of behavioural economics. She has an endless passion for travelling, always looking for new things and inspirations and loves to write.

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