Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Curse of 1000 Choices

Choice is freedom and freedom is good so the more choice the better? Instinctively we know this is not true, but it's liberating to hear it being confirmed. A couple of TED talks address the issue of choice. Barry Schwartz talks about The Paradox of Choice suggesting less is more. Dan Gilbert talks about Stumbling on Happiness and the idea that we can have real happiness when we get what we want but we can also simulate happiness when we want to make the best of what we have.

To give you a flavour:

Barry Schwartz
"I went to buy a pair of jeans (and) that used to be a 40 second affair. I just walked in, told them my size, and walked out with the jeans, that turned into an hour-long ordeal because I told them my size, they then asked me which of a dozen styles I wanted, and that, of course, required that I try them all on.

What happened was, I got the best-fitting jeans I had ever owned and felt worse about it than I had ever felt before. And that really got me thinking, why should it be that I do better and I feel worse? The result, some years later, was this book (The Paradox of Choice), which tries to answer that question. How can people do better in a world with so many choices and feel worse about how they do?"

Dan Gilbert
"Let's see how your experience simulators are working. Let's just run a quick diagnostic before I proceed with the rest of the talk. Here's two different futures that I invite you to contemplate and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer. One of them is winning the lottery, this is about 314 million dollars; and the other is becoming paraplegic. So just give it a moment of thought (laughter)- you probably don't feel like you need a moment of thought- and interestingly, there are data on these two groups of people, data on how happy they are... A year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the Lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives. "

I realised after listening to these talks how much of my day was spent making decisions m- most of them along the lines of what shall I do now. Shall I check my email? Shall I answer that now? Shall I do that boring job or the more interesting one? Shall I have a cup of tea now? Shall I return that call? Shall I check my email?.... The stress!

It seems to me there are two kinds of decisions I make. Decisions from the head - which digital camera should I buy? and Decisions from the gut - should I take this job? What shall I watch on TV? Shall I do my accounts now (this last one should be made from the head and answered Yes instead of from from the gut - I'll do them tomorrow!).

Both decisions can be more stressful than they need to be. It took me a week to do all the research required to find the best camera for taking snaps of horses (they move a lot). By the end of the week I was an expert of cameras in a certain price range with quick reaction times but of course my knowledge was quickly out of date. This was such a waste of time and in future I hope two things will happen. Camera companies will stop competing with each other to produce cameras for the average punter and instead produce cameras specifically for small markets (See Seth Godin Ted Talk below) - I want the mid priced sports photography model - robust, reasonable quality and fast response time. Secondly, the development of more sites like Which dedicated to producing a short list of items to choose between. In the old days I enjoyed making a selection from 10 possible cameras. I do not look forward to making a choice from 200.

The stressful part of making decisions from within - the gut or voice inside, is if I feel I have to be able to justify that decision. In future I'm going to be more confident of saying "I did it because it felt right".

Reading the comments on the two talks above is as interesting as the talks themselves and I would offer the following suggestions to those who complain that the problem is identified an no solution given:

- if you feel that one choice is the right one - trust that feeling
- cultivate a "good enough for me" philosophy rather than only being satisfied with the best deal
- once a choice is made, don't look back
- put our own limits on our choices - by taking advice of others, buying only brands we trust or just limiting the time to make the choice

Seth Godin at TED

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