From perusing the colourful racks at Forever 21 to browsing the snack aisle at the grocery store, millennials have more choices than ever before.
I’m an extremely indecisive person. Don’t bother asking me where we should eat or what movie we should watch on Netflix because my answer will always be the same – “I don’t know.” It’s not just big questions like “what should I do with my life” that stump me, but also small, menial ones like what movie are we seeing, at what time and at which theatre. What route should we take? Do I want popcorn or will I immediately regret it when the fake butter sickens my stomach after scarfing it down like I haven’t eaten in days?
Although some of my friends are similar in a way, I know it can be frustrating for the people I’m with to constantly be asking for a second opinion or be worried about making the wrong decision. This exasperating habit of mine is what led me to investigate the science behind indecisive behaviour.
The origin of choice
During the industrial revolution and all throughout in the post-war era (1940s-70s), consumerism found its roots. With the release of consumer goods in more colours, shapes and sizes from higher quantities of sellers, markets shifted to give consumers more buyer power. Quality of life improved and people had more choice than they knew what to do with. During the 50s, your choices consisted solely of looking through catalogues to determine which new appliance you should buy in which colour. Today it’s which picture should you post on Instagram, with which filter and what caption?
Less is more
You’d think that with more options, we should be able to make the best choices possible and be totally satisfied with our final decision, right? Wrong. The idea of “analysis paralysis” or “choice paralysis” claims that when overwhelmed with options and information, we are actually less likely to make a decision. A study performed in a grocery store presented customers with the choice between a booth with six flavours of jam to taste and another with 24 flavours. The data revealed that customers were far more likely to make a purchase from the booth with only six choices.
So even if one of those 24 flavours of jam could be the best thing you’ve ever tasted, you’ll never know because your brain simply can’t process all the possibilities. According to sources, humans have a “limited working memory,” meaning that we can only process so many options and are generally less satisfied with our final decision than if we had less choices.
From walking into Forever 21 to browsing the snack aisle at the grocery store, this data seems pretty accurate to me. I can think of many times where I’ve walked into a clothing store, overwhelmed by the brightly coloured fabrics, but walked out with nothing simply because I don’t have time to go through every item in the store and know that I bought the right one. Even more stressful is online shopping because there’s no space limitation like in physical stores. I can scroll through Amazon for hours looking for gifts, clothes or beauty products and never order anything because I don’t know for sure that I’ll be satisfied with my choice.
Is technology to blame?
Whether it’s Amazon, Netflix or Tinder, chief data officer at Earnest loan company, Gian Gonzaga believes that technology is at fault for this generation’s indecisiveness. Gonzaga’s article examines how dating apps provide us with so many choices for possible partners, but rarely lead to long-term relationships. How can we possible find the perfect partner out of dozens or in some cases hundreds of matches? He believes the solution is to outsource more of our decisions to technology in the form of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence (or AI) that is currently being used on dating apps like eHarmony and algorithms can be found on pretty much any website you visit. Since AI doesn’t possess the same flaws as humans in terms of our limited brain capacity, maybe we could be using technology to at least narrow down our options.
Severe indecision is identified as a symptom of both anxiety and depression, stemming from many psychological impacts. Fear of making mistakes and feeling guilty, worrying about pleasing others, over-analyzing situations and fear of uncertainty all typically result in the inability to make a decision. And no, this doesn’t mean you have depression because you can’t decide what you want at Starbucks. If this all happens before we make a decision, what happens after?
In a TED Talk from Barry Schwartz about his book, The Paradox of Choice, he states that choice “produces paralysis rather than liberation” and even if we overcome the paralysis, “we end up less satisfied with the result” than if we had fewer options to choose from. Whether it’s a date, choosing a movie or as Schwartz analogizes, picking a salad dressing, with so many possibilities, it’s easy for us to imagine that we could have chosen a better one. It’s a combination of regret, missed opportunity costs, escalating expectations and eventually self-blame that make us so miserable and dissatisfied with our decisions.
In a previous article of mine, I examined how the vast quantity of TV shows is actually limiting what we watch due to this concept of choice paralysis. Going along with Schwartz’s claims, viewers are less satisfied and therefore tend to stick with the most popular TV shows or even re-watch shows they’ve already seen. This is the very reason there’s a “Watch It Again” category on Netflix. Science behind this behaviour says that it has to do with predictability and comfort for viewers. We can feel powerful and know how we will feel emotionally by the end of an episode.
In the final portion of his TED Talk, Schwartz says that he assigns 20 percent less work to his students than in the past because he knows that this generation is preoccupied with so many other consuming life decisions. As millennials, we’ve grown up in a world that requires us to make more decisions than ever before. It’s the reason my brother has read the Harry Potter series a dozen times and the reason I’ve seen the first season of Arrow about five times through. Although I like to think I’d try most things once, the truth is sometimes I would much rather curl up on the couch and re-watch my favourite episodes of Gilmore Girls than spend an hour struggling to decide on something else. So what’s the solution? Outsource our decisions to AI? Force ourselves to be more decisive? If only someone – anyone – had the answer.