The paradox of modernity: The more opportunities you have, the more you will complain about your decision

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Robert Maurer

Author and references

Do you sometimes have the feeling that you have chosen badly? Do you think you would have been happier by choosing differently? Sociologists and psychologists call this state "the evil of well-being", which is caused by the excess of opportunity. It is the paradox of modernity.

Generally speaking, we think that to maximize our well-being we must maximize our freedom of choice. In theory, if we are free we can do everything in our power to improve our well-being.

The way modern society has found to maximize well-being is to maximize choice. It is thought that the more opportunities we have, the more free we will be and, therefore, the greater our well-being. This idea is so deeply rooted in our minds that no one questions it. The reflection of all this is that, in any shop even of modest size, you will find at least a dozen choices for each product. But this huge choice has a downside.

The paralysis of choice

When we have so many possibilities, we are forced to continually decide, at any moment, from the biggest to the smallest things.

The first problem, although it may seem paradoxical, is that continually deciding is not liberating, but can lead to what is called “analysis paralysis”. With so many opportunities to choose from it is harder to do so. The second "negative effect" of choice is that although we can avoid that paralysis and choose, we ultimately feel less satisfied with the outcome.

A very interesting experiment conducted by Columbia University revealed the "negative effects" of having a large number of opportunities available. The researchers set up a counter with 6 jars of jam on it, which later became 24 in a fruit and vegetable shop.

The interesting fact is that of all the people who entered the store, 60% went to the counter where there were more opportunities, but only 3% of them bought. At the counter with fewer buying opportunities, only 40% of people approached, but of these, 31% ended up buying.

What does this study teach us?

We are attracted by the number of opportunities, but when there are too many we block ourselves. In reality, our brains can only handle 3 or 4 alternatives at a time. When we have many choices, we are beset by "choice paralysis" because we are afraid of choosing badly.

If we have dozens of options to choose from and opt for one that ultimately disappoints us, we think we could have chosen better and end up regretting our choice.

More opportunities, less satisfaction

When we have to decide we also fall victim to that phenomenon that economists call "opportunity cost", that is, the value we give to things depends on what we compare them with.

When there are so many opportunities, we are more likely to imagine the interesting features of the alternatives we have discarded, so we are more likely to feel less satisfied with our choice.

In short, the huge amount of alternatives is something negative.

In reality, it isn't always necessary to make decisions, a process that becomes mentally exhausting especially when it comes to small decisions. Feeling satisfied isn't always bad.

When there is only one model of pants in the store, you can only buy this one. If you are not satisfied in the end, it will not be your fault because you had no other choice. You won't think about the other models you've seen and how they fit you.

If you have dozens of different types of pants to choose from and you buy a pair that are uncomfortable or unconvincing, it is obvious that the fault is yours because there were other alternatives available but you did not choose them. Then you think you could have chosen better. You regret the decision you have made and, as a result, you feel less satisfied with the purchase made.

It is no coincidence that in recent years the level of anxiety and depression has skyrocketed in the industrialized world, where shops are always overflowing with choice opportunities. The need to continually choose and the disappointment we feel with the decisions we make is one of the factors fueling this epidemic.

This means that, from time to time, nothing happens if you stick to a limited range of options. Embracing minimalism can greatly simplify your life and make you feel much more satisfied and happy with the decisions you make.

There is a critical line, beyond which excess of opportunity becomes a burden rather than a liberation.


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