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We're surrounded by choices in life, but psychologists have found that having those choices doesn't necessarily make us happy.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Sources:

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-16701-012
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2009.01.007
https://www.behavioraleconomics.com/resources/mini-encyclopedia-of-be/choice-overload/
[ intro ].

If you’re anything like me, you’ve turned on Netflix at the end of the day to relax, only to find yourself completely overwhelmed by the thousands of options of things to watch. Or maybe you’ve found yourself totally stuck in a cereal aisle because you just can’t decide what will make you happier— the granola with pecans and maple, or the one with cashews and honey.

Situations like this are becoming more and more common as all kinds of products target people’s specific tastes. And while having lots of choices might sound like a great thing, research has found that, actually, having lots of choices won’t always make you as happy as you’d think. There really can be too much choice!

Take your cereal-aisle situation. That’s an example of what’s called choice overload, also known as the paradox of choice. It’s what happens when you have so many options that having to choose puts a damper on your experience.

And psychology research has shown that choice overload isn’t just frustrating— it can really influence how you act. For example, in one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000, researchers from Columbia and Stanford set up a table of jam samples in a grocery store in California. They were trying to see what setup would entice the most customers to make a purchase.

On one Sunday, they offered only six samples. On another Sunday, they offered 24. On both days, people who dropped by typically sampled just one or two jars of jam.

But the larger display— on the second Sunday—drew more visitors. Except, there was one thing. Only three percent of those customers actually bought jam after sampling it.

On the other hand, almost a third of customers who visited the smaller display— the one on the first Sunday— bought something afterward. The researchers concluded that, although customers were more attracted to the larger display, the overwhelming amount of choice actually discouraged them from picking one jam to buy. Of course, it’s not like people don’t want to make choices at all.

Another study reported in the same paper looked at what amount of choice gave people the most satisfaction. In this case, psychologists offered chocolate to groups of university students. In one group, students got to choose one chocolate out of six.

In a second group, students could choose one out of 30. And in a third group, the students had no choice at all— the researchers just handed them a chocolate. In each case, the students were asked to eat and rate the chocolate.

According to what they reported, the students who were asked to choose one chocolate from six enjoyed their choice the most. Those who chose out of 30 chocolates were less satisfied. But the group that had no choice at all reported the least satisfaction with what they were given.

Both of these studies showed that people want choice, but those with too much choice are generally less satisfied than those with a more limited choice. And researchers think that comes down to two main issues:. The first is that when we have more choices, we have higher expectations.

We tend to think that with more choices, we can get closer to the thing we really want. Which means it’s easier to be disappointed. The second is that when we have more things to choose from, we also end up with more regret, because we’re more likely to look back and wonder if one of the other choices would have been better.

But even though having more choice won’t actually improve our lives, studies have found that some people will go out of their way to have more options, because they assume it’ll make them happier. For example, a 2009 article in the journal Personality and Individual Differences described a study in which psychologists surveyed people at two ice cream parlors in Vancouver. One was in a downtown area that was easy to walk to but had fewer selections.

Another was a car ride away, but offered more flavors. The researchers found that many people who wanted to make the best possible choice went to the place with the bigger menu, but they reported less satisfaction with their choices than similar customers at the simpler, local parlor. Unfortunately, these days, it’s hard to completely avoid choice overload, especially if you live somewhere with a high focus on consumerism.

You’re bombarded with choices all of the time— like when you buy groceries, or pick out your clothes, or look for a 401k plan. And since the decisions you make in an instant can affect the rest of your life, it’s worth knowing that you may not make your best decisions when you’re overwhelmed with options. Because you can’t change that, but you can make other changes in your life.

At the very least, you can remember that going out of your way to have more choices won’t always make you happier. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! And thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon, who make it possible for us to keep putting out videos like this.

It takes a lot of people to make a SciShow video, and we couldn’t do it without your help! If you’re interested in learning how you can support SciShow, head to patreon.comSciShow. [ outro ].