Choice overload: an excess of information and doubts

It’s Sunday. I just had lunch. Everything is clean and organized in the kitchen. In her bedroom, my daughter takes a nap under the blanket, with the cats. The bookshelf in my (home)office invites me to read the second volume of “Kolyma Tales [1],” whereas the autumn chill makes the sofa & blanket combination more attractive. I decide to see a movie. Which one? I don’t know for sure. I log in to Netflix — it should be easy to choose one that pleases me.

Or at least that’s what I thought until the home screen showed up…

On the main menu, four distinct groups: “TV shows”, “movies”, “new & popular” and “my list”. Within the movies category, 23 sub-options:

Within each category, other 15 additional options (only to mention the first screen)…

… and who knows how many others will be shown after that, as soon as I engage in the scrolling down marathon.

At first, this vast range of options seems attractive, a great benefit that justifies my 55.90 BRL monthly subscription: with so many titles available, it is unlikely I won’t find one I enjoy. The problem is that this same variety prevents me from deciding to watch any of them at all.

I scroll through screens and more screens, read synopses, watch trailers, click on recommendations (“Trending now” or “Because you watched…”), and I find myself lost in a maze of entertainment promises: as easily accessible as pushing a button in the remote control, but still unreachable amid my indecision.

Almost fifty minutes later, I find a film I’ve watched years ago, which I remember with satisfaction. Too late: it’s about two hours long, and by then Sophie will be awake.

I turn off the TV, a little sad

  • for not being able to watch anything at all;
  • for missing the opportunity to read a few pages of Chalámov; and finally,
  • for wasting so much of my free time.

The tyranny of small decisions [2]

When it comes to choices, we think that the more, the better. But it is not like that. More options can increase the “freedom of choice” and the feeling we have customized services. However, it also entangles us in the process of deciding through many options — a mental burden we often neglect.

There is a cumulative effect small decisions impose to our brain, causing cognitive overload (or, as Behavioral Science calls it, “ego depletion.”) Imagine if, from the moment you wake up, you had to deal with dozens of minor decisions, all of them with countless settings.

For example: in the morning, in a coffee shop, we may choose between American coffee, espresso, double espresso, decaffeinated, with fruity touches, notes of almonds, cereals, with milk, French press, Hario V60, Chemex, Aeropress…

But what difference in satisfaction does one option bring over the others? Unless you’re a barista, or really craving for a specific coffee, the difference will be very subtle, even imperceptible. And yet, we may spend a long time reading and re-reading menus searching for the perfect choice.

By the way, there is another critical point about choices: after deciding, we do not get rid (mentally) of the options that have been left behind. In fact, and depending on the outcome, we will be psychologically and emotionally attached to them for a long time, further increasing our cognitive burden — even in the context of absolutely irrelevant decisions.

A long time ago, I went out to buy yogurt at a supermarket. In the dairy session, I came across a refrigerator with 93 (!) types of the product. Yes, I wasted my time counting them for the benefit of being able to use this data someday (it paid off, after all):

natural, skimmed, lactose-free, with cereals, chocolate, fruits, jam, honey, enriched with vitamins, without sugar, with twice as much sugar, cow milk, goat milk, sheep milk…

I generally buy the same flavor. On this day, though, and despite being in doubt on which one to take home, I ended up choosing one with pieces of peach.

What for?!

Although I do like peaches, such flavor was excessively sweet to my taste.

So, there I was: besides all the time I wasted choosing something different, I now regretted my inability to pick anything minimally edible among all 93 options available. How could I have failed so miserably?

And this is yet another negative aspect of choice overload: with such a wide range of options, regret for a bad choice becomes more acute and hold to us for longer. The more options there are, the greater our remorse.

This episode shows that, if we wanted, we could spend all day long going from one supermarket to another, comparing options of a particular product, price, packaging, list of ingredients… But who has time for that? For this reason, most consumers repeat patterns, buying the same products over and over again.

It is almost unbearable being in a situation where we don’t have choices, or they are imposed by some kind of authority/government/condition. Thus, and as they become available, we have a positive feeling of being “in control” of the situation.

Still, from the moment these options get out of control, the burden of indecision caused by choice overload nullifies any advantage the “freedom of choice” might have provided. As Barry Schwartz states in his “Paradox of Choices:”

“(…) particular, increased choice among goods and services may contribute little or nothing to the kind of freedom that counts. Indeed, it may impair freedom by taking time and energy we’d be better off devoting to other matters.

Until we realize the inconvenience of these microdecisions, we will continue to immerse ourselves in the saga of doubt. He adds:

“(…) a majority of people want more control over the details of their lives, but a majority of people also want to simplify their lives. There you have it — the paradox of our times

Maximizers and satisficers

Alternately, we fall into two groups regarding to decision-making: those who seek maximization and those who accept satisficing options (“satisficing” is neologism first described by Psychologist Herbert Simon, based on the combination of satisfy and suffice).

Maximizers are, par excellence, individuals who admit nothing but the best: given a set of options, they will go through each of them, analyzing details, context, consequences, trade-offs, talk to friends and experts, build spreadsheets — until they are completely sure of choosing the best possible option (something that turns out to be illusory, though). Satisficers, for the other hand, accept something that is reasonably good. And that’s enough.

When they turn on cable TV, for example, maximizers will go through all 400 channels, one by one. Only then, after a preview of all programs being presented at that moment, they will decide which one to watch. Satisficers, on the contrary, will only move through channels until they find something that looks interesting. They’ll stop there, no matter what the other options are.

Maximization tends to be a more painful process because it consumes more time and creates more uncertainty. It often leaves people less happy, as well. After deciding, maximizers are frequently in doubt about their choices: is it really the best option? What if I’d chosen differently?

Satisficiers, for they turn, know that there may be something better “out there”. However, they prefer sticking to a reasonable option rather than diving into an ocean of endless choices.

Models to optimize your decision-making

There are several models to improve decision-making. Here, I share four of them that can assist you both in personal and professional scenarios.

First, let’s imagine we have 10,000 to invest, and we selected 3 attributes that we find relevant for this choice: profitability, low risk and high liquidity:

1. Additive Feature Model

In this model, we normalize all attributes to a scale that makes them comparable to one another — say: from 0 to 5, where 5 is the highest adherence to the criterion indicated by the attribute.

Next, we classify all options on this scale and sum up the total for each of them. The decision will be based on the option with the highest result.

In our example, and despite the individual characteristics of each investment product, we would invest the 10k in P1, which has the highest combined adherence to the criteria we initially established.

What if there was a tie between two or more options?

You could then set a fourth criterion and sort all the options again, calculating a new result. Or modify the weight of each existing attribute, so that A1 > A2 > A3, for example.

2. Lexicographic (ignore the name, it is quite simple)

The Lexicographic Model is simpler and more objective: just define the most relevant criterion for your goals and, based on it, select the option that sums up to the highest value. Assuming profitability is our main criterion, then we would choose P4:

In case two or more options present the same value, define the second most important criterion, and so on until there is only one option left.

3. Elimination by Aspect

Similar to the Lexicographic Model, we set a minimum value that we want for each criterion, and then eliminate the options until there is only one left. For example:

  • profitability > = 4 (P1 is therefore eliminated):
  • low risk >= 4 (P3 and P4 are also eliminated, leaving only P2):

Satisfying Model

We analyze the options one by one until we find the first one that satisfactorily meets our criteria. All others are promptly ignored.

In our example, suppose that we seek an investment with profitability level >=3 and low risk >=3. The first option that meets this combination is P2. We choose P2, and no longer care about analyzing P3, P4 or any other products available. It’s the famous “good enough is good enough

A few lessons for our next decisions

While it is not possible — and desirable — to use decision-making models in each choice we face, we can apply them to the most relevant ones, in order to make the process more structured and less subject to biases and heuristics. Barry Schwartz points some lessons:

  1. We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
  2. We would be better off seeking what was “good enough” instead of seeking the best.
  3. We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
  4. We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible.
  5. We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.

References

Dos Santos, T. R. (2022). Information: the more, the better?

Schwartz, Barry. (2016). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Ecco Press, revised edition.

Schwartz, Barry. (2005). [Video]. TED Talk: The paradox of choice.

Simon, Herbert. (1972). Human problem solving. Brattleboro: Echo Point Books, reprint 2019.

Tversky, Amos. (1972). Elimination by aspects: a theory of choice. Psychological Review, 79 (4), pp 281–299.

Notes

[1] There are 6 volumes in total.

[2] This expression was coined by Economist Fred Hirsch.

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Behavioral & Data Science | Futures Thinking. Building a zoo with recyclables together with my 4-y.o. daughter. Hobby writer: @non-sequitur.

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Tiago Rodrigo

Tiago Rodrigo

Behavioral & Data Science | Futures Thinking. Building a zoo with recyclables together with my 4-y.o. daughter. Hobby writer: @non-sequitur.

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