The Paradox of Choice: More is Less?

Choice has been the front and center of a free market. Having an abundance of choice, in theory, can seem like it’s liberating. Because having the luxury to be able to make a choice would equate to a level of freedom, and I’d dare say, fuel for a capitalist-based economy. However, would it surprise you if an abundance of choice is actually anxiety-causing, instead of liberating?


Buridan’s ass

Tuning into the idea of choices, a popular paradox that best articulate this idea is the “Buridan’s ass”. It illustrates a donkey between two identical piles of hay, being unable to choose, dies of hunger. This idea was first popularized by Aristotle in his piece On the Heavens, he mocked the Sophists that stated the earth is stationary and in return Aristotle stated:

“…a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.”

However, this idea developed into a paradox that was then evaluated again by Persian Scholar al-Ghazali. He discussed the application of this paradox to human decision making, asking whether it is possible to make a choice between equally good courses without grounds for preference. His view is that when given two equally good courses, free will can break that stalemate, al-Ghazali stated in his work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers:

“Suppose two similar dates in front of a man, who has a strong desire for them but who is unable to take them both. Surely, he will take one of them, through a quality in him, the nature of which is to differentiate between two similar things.”

Jean Buridan then explored this even further and took the stance that, advocating for moral determinism, a human faced by alternative courses of action must always choose the greater good. In the face of equally good alternatives Buridan believed a rational choice could not be made. Jean Buridan stated:

“Should two courses be judged equal, then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgement until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear.”

Zbigniew Lipowski, compounded the idea of Buridan’s ass and summarized his theory in the paper he wrote in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1970. He mentioned that free will could sometimes lead to inaction: an inability to choose due to excess uncertainty and, potentially, excess choice. He called it an approach-approach conflict: faced with enticing options, you find yourself unable to commit to any of them quickly. And even when you do choose, you remain anxious about the opportunities that you may have lost: maybe that other stack of hay tasted sweeter.

In his paper, he then wrote, “I maintain that it is specifically the overabundance of attractive alternatives, aided and abetted by an affluent and increasingly complex society, that leads to conflict, frustration, unrelieved appetitive tension, more approach tendencies and more conflict—a veritable vicious cycle.” Lipowski concluded that the overabundance of good scenarios was the main source of the anxiety around him.


Too many choices might be a bad thing

The paradox of Choice is then popularized by Barry Schwartz from his book The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, in his book Schwartz mentions that the daily American have too many choices to choose in their daily life, comparing the selection of choices at a supermarket to the variety of classes you can take in a university. Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can reduce anxiety for shoppers. To quote from the book:

“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.”

A choice overload in the current 21st-century era, according to Schwartz leads to customers feeling like they might miss an opportunity when given too much choice at hand. This, in turn, has led to a psychological burden that is unnecessary to the shoppers, making them feel anxious and takes them even more time to commit to a choice.

In a world where choices are abundant, where online marketplaces make more choices accessible through the internet, this paradox becomes more apparent. Perhaps, then, what we’re really seeing is the concept that we fear of missing out. We’re surrounded by great choices to make, great places to be, great things to do—and that’s liberating. But when we’re made to commit to one, just think of everything that gets away. We know that someone else is eating that delicious ice cream that we passed up—or filling that job that we turned down.

Feat image via: Fujitsu

Wibi Irbawanto Written by:

A lot of my shower thoughts becomes articles I write. I dabble in International Relations, Law, Politics, Games, and Literature. 23 y.o., Bachelor of Law

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