What is The Paradox of Choice and Why It Matters

The Paradox of Choice and Your Irrational Brain​

This is part five in my series on locus of control. Up to this point, we’ve learned what locus of control is, the biological basis of your need for control, the effect that your perceived locus of control can have on your physical and emotional health, and how we respond to situations where control is taken from us. In this installment, I’m going to cover the way our brains respond to choices when they are available, and why our need for choice is not always rational. It has to do with a concept called the paradox of choice.


In case you forgot or haven’t seen my first post on this topic, I want to quickly remind you that the words “choice” and “control” are used more or less interchangeably in this series. That’s because every choice you make is, by definition, an attempt to exert control over a situation.

Your need for choice is not based on a rational calculation where you seek to maximize value, as standard economic theory would have you believe. Research has shown that your brain is not very interested in making choices at all. In fact, it often resists doing so, even finding the process unpleasant at times. Instead, it's more interested in simply having choices.

To put it another way, while we prefer and even need to have choices available to us, it doesn’t seem to matter whether those choices are meaningful or worth the effort it takes to pursue them. This seems illogical, but it reinforces the concept of the paradox of choice. That is a behavior where humans prefer situations with a larger number of options vs. fewer ones. However, having more choices often leads to no decision at all.

So why do we do it?

This pattern of thinking can happen when you get overwhelmed by the options available and can’t effectively process all of the information, or you get stuck in a psychological loop where you’re afraid of making the wrong choice. This dichotomy of wanting more choice but getting worse outcomes when you have it is where the paradox of choice gets its name.

Delaying a decision ostensibly delays the pain associated with a potential “wrong” choice, which is one reason we do it. We also find the decision-making process itself less enjoyable when there is an abundance of options, and we tend to regret our ultimate choice (if we make one) more than when options are limited. I’ve discussed this concept of opportunity cost and the paradox of choice in another post if you want to check it out.

What the science says about the paradox of choice​

In a review of the academic literature (discussed in an earlier post), researchers found that when presented with two options, people are naturally drawn to an option if it subsequently gives them another choice. This behavior would make sense if the presence of another choice opened up the possibility of getting more than you could from the original choice alone. However, even when the expected value of both original choices was the same, the paradox of choice led people to still prefer the path that provided a second choice.

Wanna play a game?​

To test this behavior, researchers conducted a version of the Monty Hall problem, made famous by the 1960’s television show Let’s Make A Deal.

The classic 1960's game show Let's Make A Deal is a good example of the paradox of choice

They performed a couple different variants of the game. The traditional problem is where a player is presented with three doors. The player is told that there is a prize behind one of the doors and, if he chooses the correct door, he will win the prize. The contestant makes an initial selection but, before revealing what’s behind that door, the host then opens one of the other two doors. Because the host knows which door contains the prize, he always opens a door which does not contain the prize. After this reveal, the contestant is then given the option of switching from his original choice to the other remaining door before opening it.

Think you know the answer?​

The logic is counterintuitive, as evidenced by the fact that most people elect to stay with their initial choice in the original version of the game, even though your odds of winning double by switching to the other unopened door. As a brief digression, the traditional Monty Hall problem is portrayed in the movie 21, and I’ve included a link to that scene here of you want to check it out.

Now try this one​

Another variant of this study, and the one relevant to our discussion of the paradox of choice, is where they added a fourth door to the mix. That scenario followed the original script until after the host opened one of the non-selected doors, revealing no prize. In this variant of the game, the contestant was then presented with the option of either staying with his original choice (just as in the original game), or choosing an option that allowed him to make another choice between the remaining two doors.

The probability in this game does favor selecting the option that allows you to make an additional choice. However, the number of people selecting the “choose a choice” option was far more than can be explained by probability alone. If you stay with your original selection, you have a 2/8 chance of winning the prize, whereas you have a 3/8 chance of winning by switching, or a 50% increase. However, in the experiment, 243% more people chose to switch than to stay with their original choice. This result supports the conclusion that humans prefer choice at least partly for the sake of having choices, not because it means they offer additional value.

Competing theories​ on the paradox of choice

Researchers have not uncovered the exact mechanism that causes this irrational need for more choice. There are a few different theories, including the avoidance of making a “wrong” choice that I discussed previously. Another theory is that delaying your decision keeps your options open for as long as possible. This approach presumably gives you time to collect more information and more thoroughly consider your options. In reality, however, it often leads to simply delaying any thought about the decision until the deadline approaches or even to missing the deadline entirely.

Finally, delaying a decision may be an energy-management strategy technique that allows you to stay “in the game” with a minimum amount of effort. It’s much easier to decide to make a decision at a later time (even if that decision is only a minute or two in the future) than it is to exert the energy necessary to focus and think about the problem now.

Here's the thing​

As you can see, even though you have a biological need for choice, that need is not driven by rationality. Rather, it’s a psychological mechanism for supporting your self efficacy and locus of control, which in turn supports your mental well-being and overall happiness. This is an important point to remember when you are confronted with situations where you have to make a decision. Because of the paradox of choice, your natural tendency will be to gravitate toward the choice that gives you more options or simply allows you to make an additional choice or two, regardless of the true value of those choices. And, while that choice may feel right, it may not be the best one.

There’s an entire branch of literature on decision-making frameworks and strategies that can help you make better decisions in these situations. That knowledge can come in very handy, especially when there are potentially significant consequences, like with medical or large financial decisions. That’s not the focus of this series, so I’m not going to delve into that topic here. My intent here is simply to make you aware of your inherent desire for choice, the reason it exists and its drawbacks.

In the next installment of this series on locus of control, I’ll discuss how you can exert control in situations that seem overwhelming or insurmountable, and the benefits of doing so. Please check it out.

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Image courtesy of Hansueli Krapf