(Image: Jarmoluk)

Choice and regret (or when there is too much jam)

Freedom of choice is awesome… or is it?

A friend of mine attended a conference recently. It was a huge affair with thousands of participants, and — excluding special events — around 350 sessions, spread over three days. There were 22 rooms in which simultaneous, parallel lectures and workshops were taking place.

If that sounds astronomical, that’s because it actually is astronomical. The logistics involved in this kind of conference are huge, and I take my hat off to the organizers for pulling such an endeavour off with great success.

But something about it makes me feel rather uneasy. Sure, several thousands of participants will have diverse interests within the domain of a conference of this magnitude, and so it is unlikely that all 350 sessions would be of equal interest to everyone. But no matter how you cut it, you can only reasonably attend perhaps 25 of the sessions. A similar problem confronts people attending large festivals like Glastonbury, which this year has a line-up of 88 artists from Aanderson .Paak and the Free Nationals to Wiley. (Presumably ZZ Top were unavailable.) This does not include dozens of smaller acts and non-musical performances.

So how do you choose when there is so much to choose from? Can you imagine anyone working out the different criteria that describe the conference sessions or the bands, assigning weights to them, and scoring them to rank them in order of priority? This is not a sensible way of dealing with what is, essentially, choice overload.

Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist, described this phenomenon in his 2004 book, The paradox of choice. An experiment often quoted to illustrate this was conducted by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. They offered people gourmet jam or chocolates, either from an array of 6 choices, or an array of 24 or 30 choices. People facing the larger range of possibilities, they found, were much less likely to actually buy. And if they did make a purchase, they were more likely to be dissatisfied with their choice.

As is so often the case, things are not quite that simple, though. In 2010, Benjamin Scheibehenne and colleagues carried out a meta-analysis of 50 similar experiments investigating choice overload. They discovered that several among them had found no effect, or even on the contrary, that more options had facilitated choice and actually increased satisfaction. This suggests that the phenomenon does not apply universally.

Still, where it is observed, there appear to be two explanations for people walking away from making a choice. One is the cognitive load of actually choosing — the ‘cost’ of making the decision exceeds the ‘benefit’ that having made a particular choice delivers. It’s just too much bother, and life is too short. The other one is the anticipation that one might feel one should have made a different choice.

This regret is the stronger if the situation enforces exclusive choices. You may end up regretting choosing pineapple with rose petals jam at the display stand in the supermarket, when you’re putting it on your toast the next day and it’s not quite what you thought it was going to be. But you can purchase your alternative preference next time. The cost of doing so is small.

At a conference or a rock festival, however, opting for one session or artist inevitably means rejecting all other options that exist at the same time. And that can be serious regret: if you lose out on the chance of seeing Foo Fighters at Glasto 17, that chance is gone forever. And what’s worse: it was your choice to miss them, because you were totally in a position to do so!

The larger the number of choices you have to let go, the larger this kind of regret, even — perhaps even more so — for people who are rational thinkers. With each extra possibility the amount of regret increases asymptotically to the level of regret corresponding with not attending at all, and missing everything. As the sum of the heartache goes up relentlessly, it will reach the point where it outweighs the joy of experiencing even the best combination of options, and the rational conclusion is then inevitable: don’t attend at all.

The paradoxical nature of freedom of choice seems to be even starker when it involves irrevocable consequences. On the one hand, you would expect us to want to make such momentous choices ourselves. On the other hand we may find the weight of responsibility unbearable. Imagine you were given the possibility of choosing whether you, or your life partner, dies first. Would you take it, or would you rather pass and let life decide for you?

A boy or a girl — your choice? (image: Jean-Pierre Lavoie)

Thankfully, few choices we need to make in real life concern life and death. But some are truly hard, and life seems to get ever more difficult in two ways. The amount of choice in almost any category you care to think is more bewildering than ever: books, food, music, places to live or go on holiday, dental fillings, furniture, blogs to read… you name it. And at the same time we gain ever more power to actually make choices that used to be completely beyond our reach. It is now possible to select the gender of a baby with reasonable accuracy — yet people are not necessarily happy that we should have this choice: at debating.org, 74% of respondents thought parents should not have that right.

But also for less critical choices, it’s worth reflecting on all this freedom of choice. Maybe, whether we’re conference or festival organizers, a supplier of bread or just an ordinary person planning a family holiday, we should consider giving others less choice rather than more. Perhaps we should not always abdicate responsibility and leave them to work it all out.

But, even then, the paradox is never far away.

More freedom to choose, or less regret? That is a difficult choice.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on May 5, 2017.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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