Turns out the more options we have, the more anxious we get. Yep, too much freedom might be detrimental to our mental health. Here are three paradoxes involved in your decision-making process whenever you’re shopping for that perfect gift.
Do you know that feeling of uncertainty, disorientation, pressure, and utter confusion when it comes to obligatory shopping? Stress and anxiety. It’s that sensation of having too many options and too little time, or simply the strain of duress for having to find the perfect gift for your family, friend, or S.O. during that special time, whether it’s Valentine’s or Christmas or an anniversary, or what have you. Yeah, you might be suffering shopping anxiety, and there are a few interesting decision-making paradoxes that perfectly capture the essence of what you’re going through.
The Paradox of Choice
American psychologist Barry Schwartz has done extensive research on what he calls The Paradox of Choice. Basically, it posits that the more options we get, the more anxious we feel. It makes sense, but it is paradoxical. Having options and being able to choose between them is essential for freedom, but it seems an overwhelming amount of freedom, in this sense, is detrimental to our mental health. As Schwartz says in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice:
“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.”
According to Schwartz, since we’re generally driven to make perfect choices and are scared of making mistakes, perhaps the less options we’re actually offered, the less concerned we’ll be with our decision-making. As human beings we seem to desire freedom in theory, but perhaps not so much in practice. That’s the paradox. Schwartz ultimately argues that, in this sense, more is less: some choice is good, but that doesn’t mean that more choice is better.
There’s a related paradox, far older, known as Buridan’s Ass. It serves to illustrate the problem with rational choice in situations where reason itself cannot play a part in decision-making. Briefly put, when we have two or more options whose value is identical, we’ll find no rational reason to pick one over the other. This leads to a state of either paralysis or—you guessed it—utter anxiety, since we cannot bring ourselves to decide upon a course of action in any non-arbitrary way. The paradox is named after the 14th-century philosopher Jean Buridan, who maintained that
“Should two courses be judged equal, then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgement until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear.”
To satirize the counterintuitive effects that would result should we take Buridan too seriously, critics of his philosophy used the image on an ass which, when standing between two equal stacks of hay, must die of hunger while pondering which one to pick.
Way back in the 4th century BC, Aristotle used a similar image to argue against the Sophists, using the image of a man equally hungry and thirsty and placed exactly between food and drink who, having no means to decide, must necessarily stand still and starve to death. Aristotle maintained that this was a ridiculous situation, and used it to illustrate the absurdity of certain sophistic claims. Yet, the paradox does highlight just how often we must invoke arbitrary standards into our decision-making.
Thus, in looking for a perfect gift, when confronted with several of what seem as perfectly acceptable options, it’s not surprising we would descend into sheer anxiety having no proper, non-arbitrary means to make our choice.
Speaking of paralysis, we can bind the previous two paradoxes under what is known as analysis paralysis, otherwise known as “the perfectionist curse” (not really, but it might as well be called that). In looking for the perfect solution for any given time-pressing situation, we become paralyzed out of fear of making a mistake—or stuck in over-analysis. This, in turn, results in a mistake in itself, since no solution is ultimately reached. In other words, fearing to make a mistake leads to the very mistake we feared.
Anyone who’s inclined to overthinking everything knows exactly what this is like. The paradox here is not about decision-making as such, but about our satisfaction regarding our actions—in trying not to disappoint ourselves or others, we end up disappointing everyone.
As Schwartz puts it,
“When asked about what they regret most in the last six months, people tend to identify actions that didn’t meet expectations. But when asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.”
So next time you go out shopping for gifts, no matter the occasion, think of these paradoxes and look for ways to avoid them. First: don’t let your expectations be unrealistic, or disappointment is guaranteed.
Second: cut down your options. You won’t always find a rational way to do it, so, for your health’s sake, just do it arbitrarily. It doesn’t matter if you end up with less-than-perfect options, remember the first step. Your loved ones will still appreciate them and you’ll be better off.
Third: avoid overthinking. This is obviously easier said than done, but there are ways to achieve it. For example, give yourself a few minutes to ponder your decision, and if you still don’t reach a conclusion, toss a coin. As simple as that. Happy shopping!
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