Freedom is defined as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants” and “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.” And yet, this much freedom can also mean having too many options!
I think we can all agree that we live in a pretty privileged time right now. We have the freedom to choose the things we like and don’t like, the things we want and don’t want. We can choose where we go to school and what we want to be. We can change our minds when we want to. We can choose who we date and marry, when we have children– and even how we have children. We can choose who runs our government, where we live and travel, and how we dress. Most of us reading this have the freedom to choose our own adventure and yet, studies show again and again, the more choices we have, the more difficult it is to enjoy the choices we make and feel satisfied with our decisions.
Sometimes, the freedom to choose also feels like drowning in an ocean of “What if there’s something better?” and “I don’t know what to do next!” We get stuck, and this can sometimes feel like being imprisoned. Maybe we let others make our choices for us. Or maybe we put the choices off for so long they no longer become options.
I had a teacher who once told me my biggest problem was that I suffered from too many options. And that if I didn’t start removing them, the universe would for me. My mother would complain, “Why can’t you just make a decision and stick with it?! You agonize over everything and then once you chose something you regret it or wish you’d chosen something else!” Seems I can never be satisfied.
On a macro level this could be seen in a low voter turnout during an important presidential election, and then being stuck with the consequences for the next four years. On a micro level, I am a nightmare to go out to eat with (god bless my friends).
This matter of “too many options” has been studied in sociological and economic communities since the mid 2000’s.
In his 2005 Ted Talk “The Paradox of Choice,” psychologist Barry Schwartz confessed that he was driven to examine this phenomenon after he went out to buy new jeans. An older man, he explains that once upon a time he would go to buy jeans and there was only one option… and they sucked. But that’s what it was and it was totally fine. Some time passed and he went back to a store for more jeans, and suddenly there were jean options: fit, style, color, wash! After much time in the store he finally settled on a pair. He went home that day with a pair that looked and fit better than any pair he had ever owned before– and he says he felt decidedly less satisfied with them.
Wanting to understand why, he set out to study this phenomenon. He discovered that not only were people having more difficulty making decisions when they had more choices, they were actually putting off making them, sometimes avoiding them entirely. This was true even when it came to choices that could have given them more job security or income.
Mr. Schwartz explains, “It’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better… the more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.”
Additionally, sometimes even having a small amount of options can result in an abstinence of choice. The electoral win of Donald Trump has been more attributed to the low voter turnout of Democrats who didn’t want to vote for Clinton than a high voter turnout for Trump. When the option to vote for Bernie Sanders was removed, many Democrats simply chose not to choose. Freedom works in every direction.
I think I would take a Cheesecake Factory-sized menu rather than having to live through four years of Trump… but maybe that’s why I chose to move to Europe. Not that the politics are much better, but the menus are all in Italian and I know how to translate exactly one thing.