I wrote recently of the cognitive limit humans encounter when they try to choose between too many options. Today, I want to look at more of the cognitive “down sides” of choice. To begin with, let’s remember that the perception of choice is very important to human happiness. (Actually, it’s very important to lots of mammals, but that’s another article.) Feelings of self-actualization are very closely linked to the belief that we’re in charge of our own course in life.
However, research strongly demonstrates that the benefit of choice is not a straight line graph. Rather, it’s akin to a bell curve.
Having no choice is bad for us. But the benefit of choice is not limitless. At some point, the negative consequences begin to overwhelm us, and we end up more or less right back where we started.
It’s not just about an overwhelming number of choices, either. Sometimes, just having a choice at all can be a bad thing. Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, conducted an experiment with subjects playing a simple computer game. Each player saw three doors of different colors. Clicking on a door opened it and gave the player the chance to click again and win or lose a random amount of money. Alternatively, she could click on another door and close the first one.
The optimal strategy is pretty obvious. Never close a door. The amounts behind the doors are random, and the best way to give yourself the most return is to get fifty clicks behind open doors. A significant number of players figured this out early on.
However, another group’s game was tweaked in an important way. Each click on or inside one door reduced the size of the other two doors. Clicking on a shrunken door would increase it in size at the same proportion that it shrank. So the players faced a dilemma — to play the best strategy, they must let their choices disappear.
You can probably predict what happened. The players with the shrinking doors made significantly less money than those in the control group. They wasted a shockingly large percentage of their clicks on keeping doors from shrinking, even though the amounts were random, and there was no advantage to keeping the choices available.
It gets worse. Researchers explained to a third group — before playing — that the average payout behind each door was the same. And it hardly mattered. Players still wasted clicks to keep doors available, and they still made significantly less money than the control group. Both literally and metaphorically, it was more important to keep doors open than to make more money!
This experiment illustrates a powerful and often irrational drive in humans. We often “keep doors open” to our own detriment. We behave as if in general, the existence of options is better than the quality of the options themselves. Particularly in the capitalist west, this instinct is reinforced, sometimes to absurd extremes. On nearly every interstate exit, we have the choice between McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardees, and two or three other regional “burger and fries” restaurants. We now understand that preferences between such similar choices are often based more on priming than objective differences, but it doesn’t matter. We typically have a minor hissy fit if we are forced to eat a Whopper instead of a Big Mac. I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven for miles and miles waiting for an exit with lots of choices, even though I’ve passed plenty of exits with one restaurant that I’d be perfectly happy with.
The same effect also takes its toll on our dating lives, especially in metropolitan areas. Relationship blogger Susan Walsh often writes about women who keep their options open for so long that they devalue themselves right out of the dating market. Women are at the height of their “mating value” while they’re in their 20s. After the mid-30s, their value goes down significantly, since men in their 40s are still capable of attracting mates in their mid to late 20s or early 30s. So the optimal strategy for most women should be to take the best option available while her value is the highest. But commitment-phobia is rampant, and gets worse when there are larger dating pools. For women who aren’t interested in raising a family, I suppose it’s not as big a deal, but “revolving door dating” takes its toll.
It could be argued that men are refusing to commit en masse, but I’d respond that it’s only the “alpha players” who insist on accumulating bedpost notches. There are plenty of available commitments — just not from high-end alpha males. (And let’s be honest — for a guy who can have any woman he wants, most women are mopeds — fun to ride, but you don’t want your friends to see you on them.)
We also see this effect in what I call the “Hedge Second.” Many people — men and women — divert energy from a relationship and maintain a “close friend” on the side. We can certainly see this behavior as insurance against getting dumped, but we can also explain it as an aversion to closing too many doors at once.
So the moral of the story? Be careful of keeping doors open at the expense of living in the nice house behind door number one. Many times, picking any option early enough is better than picking the best option much later. (Stocks and 401ks are great examples of this. Pick any one at age 20, and it’ll be worth a lot at age 60. Wait until 30 to pick, and even the best securities will not perform as well. Investments are long term strategies.) It’s tricky territory, to be sure, but if we understand the strong appeal of having options, we can examine our decision making more skeptically, which can ironically give us the rationalization for making a choice and running with it.