The Blessing and Curse of Choices

One of the rare constants I see in my day-to-day life is that I am always making decisions.

Some say those decisions are predetermined by divine or social forces beyond control.

Other say those choices arise entirely out of one’s own volition.  

Regardless, we make (or think we make) hundreds if not thousands of choices each day.

“My alarm is ringing.  Will I get out of bed or hit the snooze button?”

“Today is a school day.  Will I go to work or skip work today?”

“What do I want to wear today?”

If people were economists, then decisions would reflect a logical maximization of value based on all available information.

If people were Freudians, then unconscious, anxiety-inducing impulses predetermine our choices.

If people were humanists, then an innate instinct pushes us to choose options that push us closer to self-actualization.

Regardless of one’s philosophical views, many agree with two assumptions related to decision-making.

  1. Having options is better than having no options.
  2. Having more options is better than having fewer options.

Assumption #1 is either easy to agree with or contradictory.  If we believe in free will, then freedom of choice seems desirable to no choice.  If we do not have free will, then the statement is nonsensical. If the former is true, then I believe we have more options than we think.

We can choose to hit that snooze button.  We can choose to skip work. We can choose to eat that whole pizza.  While each decision carries foreseeable and imminent consequences, they do remain choices.

“He makes me so angry!”

Really?  Does another person’s behavior inexorably espouse emotions in another?  It may be difficult to manage our emotions with difficult people. It may tax our overworked willpower.  However, our thoughts and reactions towards people (including ourselves) are still ultimately a choice.

Most people seem to quickly weigh present benefits with future consequences and choose accordingly.  I may choose to go to work because doing so would bring less pain than the imminent consequences of unemployment and financial hardship.  On the other hand, if my job became unbearable enough, perhaps one day I would see financial hardship as a more desirable consequence. In that case, I would choose to quit.

When faced with two or three options, making the most sensible decision in the current moment isn’t too difficult.

But what happens when one has 50 or 100 or 10,000 options?

This is where scientific research pokes holes in Assumption #2 – more choices are better than fewer choices.

Dr. Barry Schwartz outlined two types of choice systems that people use – maximizing and satisficing.

Most people (especially when a decision is important and laden with far-reaching consequences) choose with a maximizing framework.  This is when people consider the potential consequences of each option and choose the option that promises the greatest chance of maximizing well-being.

The key to maximizing is having sufficient information to make an informed decision.  When we have two or three options before us, this is a feasible task. However, there is a limit to how much time we can spend making a decision.

For example, how long would it take someone to choose the best retirement account if presented with 22 options?  It might take days if not weeks of constant research to reasonably predict the possible outcomes and consequences of each account.

In one study, researchers observed the behavior of two groups of employees.  One group had 6 options for 401k accounts. Another group had 22.  Contrary to folk wisdom, the group offered 22 different 401k plans procrastinated longer, made worse decisions, and reported less satisfaction with their choices.  More choices can lead to less satisfaction.

Schwartz describes this phenomenon as “choice paralysis” or “the paradox of choice.”  If one faces too many options with a maximizing mindset, they might struggle to decide at all.  Moreover, when they do decide, they are likely to be dissatisfied with their choice.

“I mean, this retirement account is okay, but what if I had put my money in that Vanguard fund instead?  Maybe I would be doing even better.”

The problem with maximizing is that major life decisions often involve an array of hundreds if not thousands of options.

“What should I do for work?”

“What is my purpose in life?”

“Who should I marry?”

“What house should I live in?

If we decide like an economist, researching every possible option to make the best decision, we would all be unemployed, broke, single, and homeless.

This brings up the importance of satisficing.

Unlike maximizing, satisficing does not require someone to examine every available option.  Rather, satisficing entails starting with an acceptable standard and making the first choice that satisfies that standard.

For example, imagine taking a trip to the supermarket.  You need salad dressing. You decide you want a savory, non-creamy, inexpensive dressing.  While a maximizer would starve to death weighing the pros and cons of a creamy dressing while staring at a shelf with over 100 possible dressing options, a satisfier randomly looks at Italian dressing and chooses the store’s generic brand.

In essence, maximization involves choosing the best of all possible option while satisficing involves choosing a “good enough” option.

This makes sense for small decisions like what clothes to wear, what salad dressing to buy, or how many minutes to run on a treadmill.  

But could someone propose to their girlfriend that way?

“You are good enough.  I choose you. Will you marry me?”

Since satisficing involves pre-setting a minimum acceptable standard, perhaps larger decisions just warrant higher minimum standards.  Therefore, the acceptable standard of “Who should I marry” would likely far surpass the standards of “What restaurant should I try tonight?”

Regardless of one’s philosophical take on human agency, we at least possess the illusion of choice.  In that case, what should we keep in mind when making those choices?

First, if your response is “I have no choice,” then you either a stout determinist or you have not fully considered other options.  Your job, relationship, personality, and habits are all options, not mandates. You can change them if you summon the courage to manage the consequences.

Second, more options are not always better.  Sometimes you are better off making a quick decision than making the best decision.

Third, deciding on a “good enough” option is not the same thing as settling.  Satisficing does not imply having low standards. It may not be the best decision, but it can still be the right one.

Photo Corner


Had a great time hanging with Fireball and Jewel – my favorite day-walking Canadian compadres.


This panorama came from the ferry.  The Sinan Islands may not be the best place to live, but they make for a lovely visit.


He waited and waited for someone to tell him he was a good boy.


“Did you fart?”





It’s  blurry, but this replica of the first Australopithecus skull is named “Rucy.”  Korean English hilarity strikes again.


The Mokpo Dancing Sea Fountain is always a nice way to start the evening.


I threw this one in for my sister because she loves turtles.  This one was massive.


The Mokpo Maritime Museum is aways dab-worthy.  I never have a bad time.


“Can we have some meat?”


“Come on, just a bite.  You won’t even feel it.”

“I said no!”


Don’t mess with the Allosaurus.  His mighty jaws possess the power of Kamehameha.


Diplodocus was a big AF dinosaur.  And that’s all I have to say about that.


I found what looks like a love note on a 1,000-won bill.  I hope Park Yong-Han spent that money well.


I wonder if these guys would have made good boats in dinosaur times.


King Tyrannosaurus XVI lived an extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the dinosaur peasantry and rightly lost his head in the inevitable revolution.


Baseball is king in the spring.  Students play on the field every day.  Sometimes I join in.

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