The Psychology of Choice: 8 Remarkable Insights to Help You Make Better Decisions

Psychology exists partly to explain the mechanisms behind why people aren’t always in control of themselves. Yes, even when they experience life as a seemingly limitless buffet of opportunities and options, they still work as puppets dancing on the strings for their neurological masters. So in actuality, humanity isn’t exactly as weak and helpless as that intentionally terrible metaphor claims, but patterns still emerge when faced with the decision-making process. Exert the energy to understand them, then put forth the effort to change up any behaviors that might lead toward the not-so-right choice.

  1. More options might mean more anxiety:

    Both Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less and The Art of Choosing’s Sheena Iyengar (best known for her famous jam study) churned out research noting that the more options consumers faced, the higher their anxiety levels. This is a rather simplistic summary of their findings, of course. While we tout enjoying multiple choices as the greatest of American innovations, the downside to this (because everything has a downside) involves stressing out those tasked with making the decisions. Having to make comparison after comparison after comparison taxes the mind – and, in kind, the body – with overanalysis. Iyengar believes the best way to navigate the milieu involves realizing that differences among products so often prove rather minor in the end. Decreasing the amount of products also helps in some ways as well, by reducing anxiety and expediting the shopping experience. Or, for those who prefer their shelves more fully stocked, training the brain to understand the “complexity” behind the decision-making process alleviates some of the related hand-wringing as well.

  2. Embracing uncertainty reduces stress:

    Another useful strategy for more elegantly navigating the mini-migraines (if not full-blown migraines) involves cognitively re-framing the decision-making process. This might sound like a real pain in the patootie, but honestly the explanation is so simple a pigeon could probably pull it off. Because an overabundance of options often leads to an overabundance of thinking, cutting the anxiety most effectively merely means accepting the inevitability of uncertainty. “What if?” thinking rarely helps one’s mood after following through with a decision, so choose with research and choose with confidence to alleviate most potential problems. Reconditioning the brain to understand and embrace that nobody possesses the capability to know anything “one hundred percent” might take some time. But ultimately it proves the more prudent investment in overall mental health. Start off simple, with something that will likely leave anything beyond a minor impact. Head to the cheese aisle at the grocery store and pick out a block because it looks appetizing. Don’t fret over whether or not it was made with organic, free-range milk or whether or not there are any crackers or wine at home that would pair nicely with it. Buy it. Cut off a hunk, eat it, and flush out any and all thoughts regarding what could have been with the cheeses left at the store.

  3. Understanding “choice” might mean less support for communal benefits and more support for individual ones:

    One of the most disconcerting finds regarding choice comes courtesy of Columbia University researchers Krishna Savani, Nicole M. Stephens, and Hazel Rose Markus. Although American culture revels in enjoying a variety of options, The Force’s Dark Side requires addressing since it perpetuates victim-blaming. Findings noted a relationship between understanding and appreciating the concept of “choice” and decreased support for social and economic policies meant to bolster others. Subjects in one study exposed to more options expressed less enthusiasm for Affirmative Action and environmentalism (which benefit the whole), but embraced drug legalization because of its relationship to personal choice. Overall, they typically pledged their allegiance to individual rights, and displayed less empathy for their fellow folks as well as more willingness to hold victims accountable for the situations befalling them.

  4. Our narcissistic culture wires us for irrationality and self-destruction:

    Alright. So that heading might squeak on into hyperbole territory, but William B. Helmreich’s pop sociology read What Was I Thinking? does a straightforward job of deconstructing some of the irrational behaviors behind why good (and some not-so-good) people sometimes make some seriously illogical, out-of-character, and even dangerous decisions. Human nature’s inherent erraticism obviously plays into it, but a societal milieu touting narcissism and the pursuit of the self-destruction that almost always accompanies it seems to exacerbate the ingrained. While that phenomenon does not make up the entirety of Helmreich’s points, it certainly provides a possible context for the hows and whys behind the bullheadedness. Special Snowflake Syndrome so often pushes people — even normally sweet, kind, and empathic ones — toward believing themselves above proven patterns and consequences. Such a toxic attitude often clouds their judgment and holds influence over the choices they make, which poses the risk of hurting feelings … or worse. Recognize the symptoms before they start creeping in, bust them up with logic and heart (which totally accomplishes more than summoning Captain Planet), and enjoy a life of comparatively fewer self-inflicted blowups.

  1. Pee. Or don’t pee:

    Seriously, let that bladder bulge. Not to the point of health issues, of course (please don’t sue). Mirjam Tuk at University of Twente discovered a link between the ability to hold in urine and a heightened ability to make reasonable decisions. Unsurprisingly, it all breaks down to self-control. People who possess the sterling and rare-these-days ability (even if they suffer from urinary tract issues) might wait longer to select their ultimate choice, but they also tend to select the more appropriate ultimate choice. So take some time to learn a little patience, grasshopper. Alternately, pay mind to what Florida State University’s Roy Baumeister refers to as “ego depletion” — a concept that actually contrasts Tuk’s findings! More major decisions require more major self-control, of which humans hold only a limited amount, so don’t go testing it too much beforehand. Eat when eating proves necessary. Pee when peeing proves necessary. Save that energy for the choosing ahead. Experiment with both strategies and see which one ends up the best call!

  2. Better-researched decisions aren’t necessarily the best decisions:

    Flying into a decision with all the whimsy and recklessness of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the stuff indie films, not a healthy real life, are made of. But overthinking a choice, poor or insufficient research, getting necessary information later, or some other factor outside the chooser’s control also dictate the ultimate impact. Eldar Shafir’s research from Princeton University followed nurses asked about donating kidneys to their relatives, with 65% saying they’d donate prior to knowing for certain whether or not they matched up … and only 44% affirmed as such afterwards. A little knowledge chipped away at their desire to help save a life. This logic obviously cannot stick to every situation out there, but the savvy individual keeps the concept in mind and applies it when appropriate. Find that viable middle ground between impulse and thought paralysis and realize that not everything regarding a decision necessarily falls on the shoulders of the individual making it.

  3. Pure objectivity does not exist:

    Even the most seemingly fair and impartial people still hold onto biases forged through experience, culture, and basic personality tics. Ergo, one cannot ever make a fully objective decision. Hand-wringing over it only tacks on unnecessary anxiety that might cloud judgment, so ditch that part of the process completely and focus on elements that actually exist. Swinging too far into letting bias decide everything probably isn’t such a hot idea, either, so do be prudent, please.

  4. The concept of “choice” might make Americans more likely to support wealth inequality:

    That’s not to say options should disappear entirely lest the nation devolve into a Randian nightmare of entitlement and class oppression, because that probably wouldn’t be terribly fun, either. Krishna Savani and Aneeta Rattan at Columbia University and Stanford University, respectively, noted a correlation between choice and approval toward economic splits over the span of six different studies. Each one led straight back into how subjects provided with more and more options trended toward attitudes that individuals shape their own lives. Increased opportunities meant an increased dismissal of social, economic, political, and other external factors that rut people into certain situations. Admittedly, the staggering majority of decisions most people go with hold little to no sway over wealth inequality. But the findings do serve as a reminder to keep the health, safety, and overarching well-being of others in mind when choosing between options. Nobody exists in a perfect vacuum. Living as a doormat is actually quite miserable, so don’t sacrifice personal satisfaction all the time, every time.