The Psychology of Choice

The text below comes from an article written by Pr. Ilona Boniwell which originally appeared on her Positran consultancy website. Pr. Boniwell is an expert and leading figure in Positive Psychology and we regularly collaborate on wellbeing education projects.

It’s a commonly held belief that choice means freedom, freedom leads to well-being and that as a result, greater choice means greater well-being. On the face of it, this makes perfect sense. Some choice is good for you, it gives you autonomy and enables you to exercise control over your life, even if it’s as simple as what to wear when you get up in the morning, or as important as what career to follow. Therefore it seems logical that more choice is better.

Western industrialised societies in particular place a very high value on freedom and autonomy, and citizens are encouraged to believe that pursuing them is a sign of individual and societal well-being. But is choice always a good thing? And can we ever have too much?

Research suggests that while some choice has a beneficial effect on our well-being, too much choice is detrimental, resulting in the inability to choose, regret, raised expectations and blaming oneself when the chosen option turns out to be less than perfect.

People can be divided into two broad groups when it comes to choice. Some of us are “satisificers”, that is, we just need to get what is good enough for our requirements, so we only consider options until we find one that meets our minimum criteria and choose that one. “Maximisers” on the other hand are those of us who need to get absolutely the best deal, and so we have to look at all the possible options and compare them.

As a result, maximisers often do better than satisficers, for example, their starting salary is on average $7000 per year higher, but because they are less satisfied with their choice they feel more stressed, anxious, frustrated and unhappy.

So what can we do about choice to avoid these negative effects on our well-being? Well, here are a few tips:

  • Learn to choose only when it is worth it: discipline yourself to take time to choose carefully only when the decision is important (like choosing a career or a house, but not a new mobile phone).
  • For unimportant decisions (like choosing a shampoo or a pair of jeans) try to be satisfied with an option that is merely good enough, rather than trying to make absolutely the best choice.
  • Lower your expectations – do not expect perfection, however many choices there are.
  • Avoid comparing yourself with other people
  • Try to stick to your choices and don’t change your mind. 

Published by Improve My Well-being

Laura is an experienced mentor and teacher, with a MSc Applied Positive Psychology (Distinction). She enjoys living and working in multicultural environments and is passionate about promoting social well-being. Blogging is her outlet to share and explore well-being initiatives and practices with as many people as possible.

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