Americans today choose among more options in more parts of life than has ever been possible before. To an extent, it is only logical to think that if some choice is good, more is better. Yet recent research strongly suggests that, psychologically, this assumption is wrong. Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less.
This evidence is consistent with large-scale social trends. Assessments of well-being by various social scientists--among them, David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University--reveal that increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being in the U.S. and most other affluent societies. As the gross domestic product more than doubled in the past 30 years, the proportion of the population describing itself as "very happy" declined by about 5 percent, or by some 14 million people. In addition, more of us than ever are clinically depressed. Of course, no single factor explains decreased well-being, but findings indicate that the explosion of choice plays an important role.
Thus, it seems that as society grows wealthier and people become freer to do whatever they want, they get less happy. What could account for this degree of misery?
Along with several colleagues, I have recently conducted research that offers insight into why many people end up unhappy rather than pleased when their options expand. We began by making a distinction between "maximizers" (those who always aim to make the best possible choice) and "satisficers" (those who aim for "good enough," whether or not better selections might be out there). We borrowed the term "satisficers" from the late Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University.
Next, we composed a set of statements--the Maximization Scale--to diagnose people's propensity to maximize. Then we had several thousand people rate themselves from 1 to 7 (from "completely disagree" to "completely agree") on such statements as "I never settle for second best." We also evaluated their sense of satisfaction with their decisions.
We did not define a sharp cutoff to separate maximizers from satisficers, but in general, we think of individuals whose average scores are higher than 4 (the scale's midpoint) as maximizers and those whose scores are lower than the midpoint as satisficers. People who score highest on the test--the greatest maximizers--engage in more product comparisons than the lowest scorers, both before and after they make purchasing decisions, and they take longer to decide what to buy. When satisficers find an item that meets their standards, they stop looking. But maximizers exert enormous effort reading labels, checking out consumer magazines and trying new products. They also spend more time comparing their purchasing decisions with those of others.
Naturally, no one can check out every option, but maximizers strive toward that goal, and so making a decision becomes increasingly daunting as the number of choices rises. Worse, after making a selection, they are nagged by the alternatives they have not had time to investigate. In the end, they are more likely to make better objective choices than satisficers but get less satisfaction from them. When reality requires maximizers to compromise--to end a search and decide on something--apprehension about what might have been takes over.
We found as well that the greatest maximizers are the least happy with the fruits of their efforts. When they compare themselves with others, they get little pleasure from finding out that they did better and substantial dissatisfaction from finding out that they did worse. They are more prone to experiencing regret after a purchase, and if their acquisition disappoints them, their sense of well-being takes longer to recover. They also tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers do. Working with Columbia University psychologists Rachael F. Elwork and Sheena S. Iyengar, I found that maximizing college seniors searching for jobs actually found positions with 20 percent higher starting salaries than satisficing job seekers. Yet the maximizers were less satisfied with the jobs they got, and with the entire search process, than the satisficers were.'
Does it follow that maximizers are less happy in general than satisficers? I and other researchers tested this by having people fill out a variety of questionnaires known to be reliable indicators of well-being. As might be expected, individuals with high maximization scores experienced less satisfaction with life and were less happy, less optimistic and more depressed than people with low maximization scores. Indeed, those with extreme maximization ratings had depression scores that placed them in the borderline clinical range.
Recipe for Unhappiness
Several factors explain why more choice is not always better than less, especially for maximizers. High among these are "opportunity costs." The quality of any given option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. One of the "costs" of making a selection is losing the opportunities that a different option would have afforded. Thus, an opportunity cost of vacationing on the beach in Cape Cod might be missing the fabulous restaurants in the Napa Valley. If we assume that opportunity costs reduce the overall desirability of the most preferred choice, then the more alternatives there are, the deeper our sense of loss will be and the less satisfaction we will derive from our ultimate decision.
Lyle Brenner of the University of Florida and his collaborators demonstrated the effects of opportunity costs when they had subjects put a dollar value on subscriptions to magazines or flights from San Francisco. Some attached prices to a single magazine subscription or a single destination. Others attached prices to the same magazine or destination when it was part of a group containing three others. Prices were consistently lower when a given alternative was evaluated as part of a group than when it was evaluated in isolation.
Why might this be so? When you assign a value to, say, Newsweek, as part of a group that also contains People and Us, your tendency will be to compare the magazines. Each comparison that Newsweek wins will be a gain, but each comparison that it loses will be a loss, an opportunity cost. But we know from the research of Nobelist psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and his late colleague Amos Tversky of Stanford that losses (in this case, opportunity costs) have a much greater psychological impact than gains. Losses make us hurt more than gains make us feel good.
Sometimes opportunity costs may create enough conflict to produce paralysis. The problem of opportunity costs will be worse for a maximizer than for a satisficer. The latter's "good enough" philosophy can survive thoughts about opportunity costs. The "good enough" standard also leads to much less searching and inspection of alternatives than the maximizer's "best" standard. With fewer choices under consideration, a person will have fewer opportunity costs to subtract.
Regret Adds to Costs
Just as people feel sorrow about the opportunities they have forgone, they may also suffer regret about the option they settle on. My colleagues and I devised a scale to measure proneness to feeling regret and found that people with high sensitivity to regret are less happy, less satisfied with life, less optimistic and more depressed than those with low sensitivity. Not surprisingly, we also found that people with high regret sensitivity tend to be maximizers. We think that worry over future regret is a major reason that individuals become maximizers. The only way to be sure you will not regret a decision is by making the best possible one.
Regret may be one reason for our aversion to losses. Have you ever bought an expensive pair of shoes only to discover that they are so uncomfortable that you cannot wear them for more than 10 minutes without hobbling? Did you toss them out, or are they still sitting in the back of your closet? Chances are you had a hard time throwing them away. Having bought the shoes, you incurred an actual, or "sunk," cost, and you are going to keep them around in the hope that eventually you will get your money's worth out of them. To give the shoes away or throw them out would force you to acknowledge a mistake--a loss.'
In a classic demonstration of the power of sunk costs, people were offered season subscriptions to a local theater company. Some were offered the tickets at full price and others at a discount. Then the researchers timed how often the purchasers attended the plays. Full-price payers were more likely to show up than discount payers. The reason for this, the investigators argued, was that the full-price payers would experience more regret if they did not use the tickets because that would constitute a bigger loss.
Several studies have shown that two of the factors affecting regret are how much personal responsibility one feels for the result and how easy it is to imagine a better alternative. The availability of choice obviously exacerbates both these factors. When you have no options, what can you do? You will feel disappointment, maybe; regret, no. But with many options, the chances increase that a really good one is out there, and you may well feel that you ought to have been able to find it.
Adaptation Dulls Joy
A phenomenon called adaptation also contributes to the fallout we face from too many choices. Simply put, we get used to things, and as a result, very little in life turns out quite as good as we expect it to be. After much anguish, you might decide to buy a certain luxury car and then try to put all the attractions of other models out of your mind. But once you are driving your car, adaptation begins, and the experience falls just a little bit flat. You are hit with a double whammy--regret about what you did not choose and disappointment with what you did, even if your decision was not bad.
Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experiences does not sustain itself. Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia have shown that people consistently mispredict how long good experiences will make them feel good and how long bad experiences will make them feel bad. The waning of pleasure or enjoyment over time always seems to come as an unpleasant surprise.
And it may cause more disappointment in a world of many options. The opportunity costs associated with a decision and the time and effort that go into making it are "fixed costs" that we "pay" up front, and those costs then get "amortized" over the life of the decision. The more we invest in a decision, the more satisfaction we expect to realize from our investment. If the decision provides substantial satisfaction for a long time after it is made, the costs of making it recede into insignificance. But if the decision provides pleasure for only a short time, those costs loom large. Spending four months deciding what stereo to buy is not so bad if you really enjoy that stereo for 15 years. But if you are excited by it for six months and then adapt, you may feel like a fool for having put in all that effort.
The Curse of High Expectations
A surfeit of alternatives can cause distress in yet another way: by raising expectations. In the fall of 1999 the New York Times and CBS News asked teenagers to compare their experiences with those their parents had growing up. Fifty percent of children from affluent households said their lives were harder. When questioned further, these adolescents talked about high expectations, both their own and their parents'. They talked about "too muchness": too many activities, too many consumer choices, too much to learn. As one commentator put it, "Children feel the pressure ... to be sure they don't slide back. Everything's about going forward.... Falling back is the American nightmare." So if your perch is high, you have much further to fall than if your perch is low.
The amount of choice we now have in most aspects of our lives contributes to high expectations. When I was on vacation a few years ago in a tiny seaside town on the Oregon coast, I went into the local grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner. The store offered about a dozen options for wine. What I got was so-so, but I did not expect to be able to get something very good and, hence, was satisfied with what I had. If instead I had been shopping in a store that offered an abundance of choices, my expectations would have been a good deal higher and even a better wine might have left me sorely disappointed. When we say an experience was good, what we mean, in part, is that it was better than we expected it to be. High expectations almost guarantee that experiences will fall short, especially for maximizers and especially when regret, opportunity costs and adaptation do not factor into our expectations.'
A Link to Depression?
The consequences of unlimited choice may go far beyond mild disappointment. Americans are showing a decrease in happiness and an increase in clinical depression. One important contributing factor is that when we make decisions, experience the consequences and find that they do not live up to expectations, we blame ourselves. Disappointing outcomes constitute personal failures.
The research that my colleagues and I have done suggests that maximizers are prime candidates for depression. With group after group of people, varying in age (including young adolescents), gender, educational level, geographic location, race and socioeconomic status, we have found a strong correlation between maximizing and measures of depression. If the experience of disappointment is relentless, if virtually every choice you make fails to live up to expectations and aspirations, and if you consistently take personal responsibility for the disappointments, then the trivial looms larger and larger, and the conclusion that you cannot do anything right becomes devastating. Although depression has many sources, and the relation among choice, maximizing and depression requires more study, there is good reason to believe that overwhelming choice at least contributes to the epidemic of unhappiness spreading through modern society.
What Can Be Done
The news I have reported is not good. Does it mean that we would all be better off if our choices were severely restricted, even eliminated? I do not think so. The relation between choice and well-being is complicated. Being able to choose has enormously important positive effects on us. But only up to a point. As the number of choices we face increases, the psychological benefits we derive start to level off. And some of the negative effects of choice accelerate. A quarter of a century ago the late Clyde H. Coombs of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and George S. Avrunin of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst noted that good feelings "satiate" and bad feelings "escalate." Much the same can be said of choice: what is good about choice "satiates" and what is bad about it "escalates." A point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery. It appears that American society has long since passed that point.
Few Americans would favor passing laws to limit choices. But individuals can certainly take steps to mitigate choice-related distress. Such actions require practice, discipline and perhaps a new way of thinking, but each should bring its own rewards.
Beyond those individual strategies, our society would be well served to rethink its worship of choice. As I write this, public debate continues about privatization of Social Security (so people could select their retirement investments), privatization of Medicare and prescription drug benefits (so people could choose their own health plans), and choice in public education. And everyone seems to insist that having patients choose their treatments will make them better off. Software developers design their products so that users can customize them to their own specific needs and tastes, as if the resulting complexity and confusion are worth it. Manufacturers keep offering new versions of old products, as if we needed more variety. The lesson is that developments in each of these spheres may well rest on assumptions that are deeply mistaken.