The Science of Choice: Choose from Three to Lower Stress, Boost Happiness

by Scott Crabtree

"Choose from Three" card from Choose Happiness @ Work gameA story illustrating the science of choice

Juan needed Chris’s approval to choose a new software package. Chris asked Juan to come with several options. She wanted the advantages and disadvantages of each. Wanting to be thorough, Juan created a table with thirteen different packages. Chris felt overwhelmed. She struggled to hold the options in her head, became anxious, and resisted making a decision that day. Knowing a bit about the science of choice, she asked Juan to narrow down the options to the top three and come back again.

When Juan returned, he had narrowed the options down to the top three. Chris quickly, confidently, and happily made a choice, giving them both a sense of progress and accomplishment.

The Science

We generally believe we want as many options as possible. “The more the merrier,” as the saying goes. But research led by Dr. Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, has shown that in many cases, more options lead to more stress and less happiness. Schwartz’ data suggests that if you attempt to choose from 13 options, your working memory will likely be overloaded. Even if you’re able to pick one, you’ll have to let go of the other 12 possibilities. You tend to be less happy with the choice you make; after all, maybe one of the other dozen choices would have been better?

When you instead choose from limited options–three in this example–you don’t get as overwhelmed. When you select one, you only miss out on two.

Like a lot of research, findings in this area are mixed. Some studies haven’t found the same results as Schwartz’ original work. It seems to depend on the number of choices offered, the complexity of the choices, and the level of emotion about the choice. As always, we suggest experimenting with your own unique brain. How many choices are enough for you? How many choices does it take for you to start feeling overloaded with options? Or to be less satisfied with the choice you make?

Apply It

When presenting yourself or others with choices, experiment with fewer options and see how you feel. If it works for you, build a habit of offering limited choices. Please let us know how it goes!

Learn More

This book and study are great places to learn more about the “Paradox of Choice”:

Book: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Revised Edition by Barry Schwartz

Study: Spoilt for choice: The role of counterfactual thinking in the excess choice and reversibility paradoxes. Rebecca J. Hafner, Mathew P. White, Simon J. Handley. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Volume 48, Issue 1, January 2012, Pages 28–36.

(Note that this is one of many in a series of blog posts about solutions offered in Choose Happiness @ Work.)