Is My Puppy The Cutest? Overcoming the Paradox of Choice
My Australian labradoodle, Buster, is objectively the best puppy ever. We bring him home this month, and I’m so happy we will finally have him! When I went to the breeder back in the summer she had one male puppy, and I was thrilled. We waited for months until he was fully trained before bringing him home. However, a funny thing happened a few months before Buster came home — another litter of puppies arrived.
I remember scrolling down the breeder’s Facebook page, looking at all the new puppies and fretting that maybe mine wasn’t the cutest. My husband reminded me I was being ridiculous. What did it matter if Buster wasn’t the cutest? Shouldn’t I be happy that all the puppies were cute? Besides, we’d already picked our dog. We made our choice. “But,” I worried, “what if we chose wrong?”
In the Western world, we firmly believe more choices are always better. However, research shows a lot of choices may be worse and make us unhappy and less productive. This is called the “paradox of choice,” and it’s a topic psychologist Dr. Sheena Iyengar spent a lot of time researching.
Dr. Iyengar set up a display of jams at a market and periodically switched the number of different jams on display from six to 24. While more people stopped to browse the bigger display, only 3 percent bought a jar. Meanwhile, when there were just six jams, 30 percent of shoppers bought one! Before you think, “Who cares? It’s just jam,” know Dr. Iyengar ran a similar experiment with employers and 401(k)s. She surveyed over 800,000 Americans from 650 employers and found the more funding options a plan offered, the fewer people chose to participate.
This “choice overload” can lead to some people to not make any choice at all and miss out on an extra $5,000 a year from their employer because they can’t choose a plan. Or, in my case, nearly not getting a puppy because you’re worried he won’t be the best dog after all. Regret is a big reason why too many choices can make us less happy, even when we do make a choice. As psychologist Barry Schwartz says, “It’s easy to imagine you would have made a different choice that would have been better … this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.”
Schwartz suggests the secret to happiness is low expectations, but I don’t think we need to believe the world is terrible to surprise ourselves into being happy. We don’t all have to live in identical houses and eat the same strawberry jam every day, either. But experiencing regret is a choice we don’t have to make. Rather than wonder “What if?” ask “What do I need?”
“Maximisers” who spend time agonizing over every element of a choice tend to feel less confident about the decisions they’ve made. Meanwhile, “satisficers” make quick decisions based on basic criteria and are often much happier with their decisions in the long run. In the case of my puppy paradox, I can say being a satisficer worked out. Buster met my basic criteria of “male Australian labradoodle,” and besides, he is scientifically the cutest puppy of them all.