There are over 20,000 restaurants in New York City, ranging from delis to 3 Michelin Star recipients. That is enough to go someplace different for dinner every day of the year from the age of 20 to 75. One could conceivable have one of the best meals of their lives every Saturday night, assuming of course that they have the necessarily funding. Then why do I either go to same place I went to the week before or have a good, but not outstanding experience when I try something new? I read reviews, get suggestions from friends and check out the menu pictures ahead of time, but i am still rarely blown away.
I think the answer has to do at least in part with the fact that the search universe is so large. With such an overwhelming number of excellent options, it is incredibly difficult to simply pick one. Once you have chosen and made a reservation, in the cab there you pass dozens of other options that might have been better choices. “Oh wow, that place looks really cool. Why didn’t that come up in my search?” or “That place is packed! I bet it is spectacular.” No matter how great your meal tastes, that doubt and uncertainty stays in the back of your mind and affects the entire experience.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been in the middle of making plans to go out with a group of people for dinner or brunch (a sacred culinary experience in NY) and been met with the same response from every attendee to the question of where we should go. “Wherever you want to go. I will eat anything.” I assume that anyone in a relationship will experience a very familiar sigh of frustration upon reading that. Unless there is a very specific place you want to go to because of a stellar recommendation or review, people almost uniformly want to avoid choosing between 20,000 options.
Now contrast that with making the following decision while in line at McDonalds to order fries, “Small, medium or large?” Easy. 2 seconds and you move on. Sure it depends on how hungry you are and if you are on a diet (in which case you should probably question the McDonalds decision in the first place), but you still make a quick decision and move on. Interestingly, economic theory states rather clearly that consumer utility directly benefits from an increase in a decision set. In different situations, at different existing levels of choice the magnitude of the correlation varies, but it is always positive. After all, how could one more option in the grocery store make you worse off? You can always just not buy it.
But put yourself back in line at McDonalds. Would you be happier if you had 10 size options for fries that would “allow you to perfectly match your order to your hunger level”? Would you have a more pleasant experience choosing between (S, SS, SSS, M, MM, MMM, L, LL, LLL, and XL) or between (S, M and L)? I have a feeling that most people would say that 3 options get the job done and that 10 would be overkill to the point of annoyance.
This “paradox of choice” has been explored by a number of psychologists and was foundational in the creation of the field of behavioral economics (see the works of Kahneman & Tversky, Thaler, and Schwartz), but has not really been communicated to the general public in a way that can benefit them in their daily lives.
One of the clearest examples of this paradox in my own personal life is when I recently opted into the Whole30 nutrition program (worth the google search). Since high school my weight has fluctuated wildly every few years and, as of a few months ago, I was on the denser end of the spectrum and having a tough time eating well. I would be surrounded by many healthy options for lunch and dinner, but would become stressed by work or having to choose from among all the healthy options so I would end up eating heavy, calorie-dense comfort food, which left me feeling even worse in the end . Because the Whole30 mandates eating (basically) only meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts I didn’t have very many places that I could buy prepared food from. So I started cooking and meal prepping lunch and dinner for the week. Not only have I been eating more healthy food, but the stress around food selection has completely evaporated. I don’t have to worry about choosing anymore. All I have to do is heat up my food and enjoy (although it helps that I have found some great recipes). I am happy to report that things are going very well.
What other areas of personal and professional life could this idea be applied to?