How to Avoid Choice Overload
A friend called asking for help. She was stuck trying to make a decision. After months of discussion she and her family finally convinced her mother of the need to move her into an assisted living facility. That’s never an easy life transition to manage. My friend said, however, that compared to actually choosing a place for her mother, convincing her independent-minded mother to move was easier in retrospect.
My friend wanted to make the best choice and find the right location for her mother. Overwhelmed by the many choices she faced, she was unable to make a decision. Ordinarily a clear-headed and logical person, her lists and spreadsheet only made things harder! She was experiencing choice overload.
According to Leonard Mlodinow, “Research suggests that when faced with too many choices or too many decisions to make, we experience “choice overload,” analogous to the “information overload” so famous in our current age. Both types of overload stimulate the primitive parts of your brain that respond to fear in life-and-death situations, depleting your mental resources, causing stress, and undermining your self-control.”
The situation is not new. Over a hundred years ago William James expressed the danger of having too many choices. “There is no more miserable human being than one . . . for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time for rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional unprecedented torrent of choices.” Unfortunately, things are only worse today, we are faced with an unprecedented torrent of choices daily, even hourly. I recently read several accounts of people being overwhelmed with their shopping experiences at a certain hip grocery chain.
Luckily for my friend, there is a remedy for choice overload. She needed to use a decision-making strategy in which she accepted the first satisfactory option, rather than continuing to look for “the best one,” or the “right one” for her mother.
Psychologists call those who do the former “satisficers,” as opposed to “maximizers,” who always try to choose the best. The term was coined by Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon in 1956 to explain the behavior of decision-makers who don’t have enough information to make the optimal choice and, rather than struggle to get all available information or data, decide to save time and effort by making a choice despite them.
When I was in parish ministry just outside of Washington DC many of our congregational members worked for the federal government. Those who served on church committees, when faced with making a decision would make a choice from options and say, “good enough for government work,” and move on. That was a contrast to my experience in academia where faculty committees can take months of deliberation without moving on to action or settling on any solution without “more research.” More “research” had less to do with gathering more relevant data and more to do with just avoiding making any decision that involved risk.
Mlodinow advises, “We all want to make good choices, but research shows that making exhaustive analysis, paradoxically, doesn’t lead to more satisfaction. It tends to lead instead to regret and second-guessing. Letting go of the idea that a choice must be optimal, on the other hand, preserves mental energy and allows you to feel better if you later learn that a better choice existed. What works when choosing shoes or a new car or a vacation plan may not suffice when choosing a doctor or a partner for what you hope will be a lifetime relationship. But for most situations, those who accept options that are good enough, rather than feeling compelled to find the optimal one, tend to be more satisfied with their choices and, in general, happier and less stressed individuals.”
See Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, by Leonard Mlodinow, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2018), p. 55-56.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).