The tyranny of choice

“As the number of available choices increases…the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects…begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate…At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize” – Barry Schwartz The Paradox of Choice

Too Much Choice

Many menus now contain steps to help you through the array of decisions and options you have to navigate!

At end of last term, I headed to a nearby pub with some colleagues to enjoy a celebratory meal. We had a lot to look forward to: a break from the pressures of school, the start of spring. It was a beautiful day and we were surrounded by people with shared interests. A group of four women dominated the conversation as they perused the menu with anguished torment trying to decide what to choose. The menu provided a bast array of options, for example, the burger section: each burger type had a choice of meat, a choice of sauce, a choice of sides and numerous other combinations with other items on the menu. To make matters worse alongside every dish, the number of calories was listed leading to further anguish and guilt among these women. They weighed up what they had eaten so far, what they would eat later: ‘maybe if I only eat a salad I can eat this burger now’. This self-torture lasted a good 40 minutes. I was very frustrated by this experience and left feeling irritated and judgemental of these girls and yet how often are we all in this very position? More often than I think we realise.

We live in a consumer driven society, and, provided we have the means, everywhere we turn we are surrounded by choice. Many of the choices we make are done unconsciously as Schwartz explains in his excellent book ‘The Paradox of Choice’: on a work day we choose to get up at a certain time, clean our teeth, wash, have breakfast, etc. These choices have become so routine that they cause us minimal anguish. Ironically I often find I can get more stressed and anxious at weekends and holidays as I am faced with more flexibility with my choices: what am I going to do this afternoon, when shall I cook dinner, should I cook dinner or should we eat out? This constant weighing up of options can be exhausting.

I am very lucky to have a variety of interests, friends, a loving partner and close family. On many weekends I am faced with a variety of options: I could go climbing, I could spendthea weekend with my parents, I go for or dinner or the cinema, I could relax at home, I could devote the weekend to spending time with my boyfriend. I could…I could…I could… I am very thankful to have such rich variety in my life, but so much choice has a negative side. I cannot count the number of times I have been tormented by making a decision on what to do with a weekend. I will weigh up various options and consider their benefit on a number of levels, but it tends to boil down to: how will this option benefit me and what will other people think of me if I choose this option?

When I make a decision I will continue to worry if it was the right choice long beyond the point where I can no longer change. I seem to loose the ability to think logically and accept my decisions, for example, I may choose to spend a quiet weekend at home as I know I need to rest. In the back of my head, however, all weekend, I will think ‘Should I have gone on that climbing trip? Maybe I would have had a really good time? I bet the weathers really good and everyone’s having fun!’. This fear of missing out (FOMO) is a major factor in our society and it driven by the amount of choice we have.

We are lucky to live in a society where we are free to make fundamental choices about our lives, yet why are we so racked by anxiety and depression? Too much choice leads to regret, disappointment and doubt and can only take us away from the present moment.

I look forward to reading more of Schwartz’s book, in particular, his section on how to change the way you copy with choices. For now, I will try be more aware when I make choices, be more at peace with decisions I make and not dwell on feelings of disappointment or regret.



  1. Yes, so many choices can boggle the mind. That’s why I need regular doses of nature. It soothes my overactive mind. No choices are required when sitting on a cliff overlooking Yosemite Valley or dangling my feet in a fresh mountain stream.

    1. I agree – it’s why I rock climb – it takes you away to remote places where you simply focussing on being in that place and climbing. Thanks for your comment

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