Most people love ice cream. Most people also know which flavor they fancy the most. Choosing a scoop to get should be easy enough. But what if on the menu you find a word clutter that says strawberry, salty caramel, hazelnut, pistachio, marshmallow, dark chocolate, yogurt, cherry, lemon, mint… We guess you end up with the same flavor you’ve been getting for years. Probably, you just went through “choice paralysis”.

In simple terms, choice paralysis happens when confronted with a high number of fairly equivalent options (see the pistachio – hazelnut dilemma), all of which have equally satisfying outcomes. The result is being overwhelmed by options and unable to make a good decision (or a decision at all). Besides the number of options, apprehension in decision-making, associated with the belief in a “perfect” decision, is also on the table.

The effects of this phenomenon become more present as the stakes of our decisions and their impact in our lives increase. Take for instance purchasing a new laptop, surely relatable, and when confronted with all the what ifs as “Should I choose the 10th generation i5 intel core or the 7th generation i7 intel core? What if I have to use that heavy photoshop plugin?” and yadda yadda.

Choice paralysis and learning programming by Jordan Lee (Medium)

Choice paralysis and learning programming by Jordan Lee (Medium)

Naturally, we want to opt for the choice that better satisfies our needs; but we are all guilty of relying on looking up “top laptops for school” on geeky websites, opening 25  browser tabs and ending up buying one “because the reviews are good”.
This familiar situation is flooded with unnecessary information that load our decision process. Hence, using shortcuts such as reviews, top 10 lists and etc. to help us out. We also take shortcuts unconsciously: we use cognitive heuristics. This is a natural adaptation strategy to preserve mental energy provided by mother nature.

To explain this, we must first recognize that as human beings, we always go for a path with the least resistance: in other words, our brains are lazy. It is not (entirely) our fault. It is an evolutionary adaptation: as we have so many decisions to make every day, our brains save energy whenever possible and simplify complex choices by using cognitive rules of thumb. These, in behavioral science, are called heuristics, and do a great job in simplifying our mental life.

But, as these are merely educated guesses, heuristics can bias our decision making. They tend to forget about details that may come from sophisticated thought, such as logic and statistical reasoning.

Take, for example, the present bias: our tendency to favour and over value immediate rewards and gratification while undervaluing long-term interest. Do you relate? Financial behavior is a major example, and we all had budgeting problems at some point (shopping in sales season can get out hand). Surely most students will know the struggle in letting go of a movie night for catching up with studying.
A more institutional example is the widespread failure to enroll in the right retirement plan: since your retirement doesn’t look that relevant when you’re in your 20s. As such, retirement savings (in the U.S. landscape) have been a major problem.

Also relevant with cognitive overload, there’s the status quo bias. In simple terms, it is defined as one’s inertia to change, leading us to stick to a decision made previously (even if changing it would imply higher benefits for that individual). The power of a default option comes right from status quo bias in choice architecture.

Making a certain option the default, helped increase adoption rate in different contexts, such as organ donations and also with the mentioned retirement savings plans.

At aggregate level, organizations and governments can rely on things like bureaucracy for chances to introduce nudges (cheap & easy to avoid elements of choice architecture that can work against our cognitive heuristics in a predictable way, promoting better decision making), like making organ donation the default option, or making automatic enrollment in a fair retirement plan. (for our new readers see our previous article on nudging).

Choice overload archives | Prime Quadrant

Choice overload archives | Prime Quadrant

Taking Action

Given that organizations have a fair chance to design the choice landscape, what is more needed is a strategy to help ourselves out in decision making. For individuals, the job is doubled, as we’re required to be our decision makers as well as choice architects. So what to do? According to an authority on choices, Barry Schwartz, the best advice is: limit your options. (multitaskers, anyone?)

Take the example of the laptop again: make your research, but try to put a  limit on the number of sources you’ll have. The more choices you include, the sooner your brain will get tired.

Another good tip is to prioritize. One of the reasons we get paralyzed when choosing is because we don’t have our priorities set! Back to the laptop example, you could ask yourself: what will I do with it? Read slides or editing hour long videos? Having your priorities in mind when doing your research reduces your chances of experiencing cognitive overload and helps to focus on why you have to make a decision on the first place.

In Conclusion

All things considered, Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” said it best: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

Everybody needs a fishbowl

Everybody needs a fishbowl

“[You can be anything you want to be — no limits.] “

“You’re supposed to read this cartoon and, being a sophisticated person, say, “Ah! What does this fish know? Nothing is possible in this fishbowl.” Impoverished imagination, a myopic view of the world — that’s the way I read it at first. The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to the view that this fish knows something. Because the truth of the matter is, if you shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, you don’t have freedom. You have paralysis. (…) Everybody needs a fishbowl. This one is almost certainly too limited — perhaps even for the fish, certainly for us. But the absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery and, I suspect, disaster.”

Sources:, Deloitte, The Conversation, The New York Times, “The paradox of choice” – Barry Schwartz,, Equity Release Council

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