In our day-to-day lives, we often find ourselves overthinking seemingly insignificant decisions. While some may dismiss these choices as trivial, recent research has shed light on the logical reasons behind our tendency to feel overwhelmed. Understanding the underlying causes of this stress can offer valuable insights into how to effectively manage it.
A key factor contributing to decision-related anxiety is the overwhelming number of options available to us. Economists have long extolled the benefits of having a wider range of choices. However, in 2000, US psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Leeper challenged this conventional wisdom.
In an intriguing study, they set up a jam testing table at a local supermarket. Surprisingly, they found that customers were more likely to purchase a jam when presented with fewer options. When the stall offered only six flavors, nearly a third (30%) of customers bought a jar. However, when the choices increased to 24 flavors, a mere 3% made a purchase.
Building upon these findings, US psychologist Barry Schwartz explored the phenomenon in his book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” suggesting that an abundance of choices can induce anxiety in individuals.
Furthermore, individuals often lack the expertise or confidence to properly assess their options, particularly in areas such as financial decision-making. Uncertainty regarding the degree to which one should adhere to personal goals can also contribute to decision-related headaches. For instance, a vague goal of “saving more” may fail to provide clarity when faced with the temptation of going out for food with friends and a rumbling stomach.
Moreover, some decisions we label as trivial may possess emotional significance. Choosing an outfit for a date, for example, involves more than just a fashion statement.
While each of these factors can independently generate stress, the combination of all these elements intensifies the anxiety surrounding decision-making.
An individual’s personality plays a significant role in decision strategies and overall well-being, as revealed by a separate line of research. Scholars have identified two primary decision-making strategies: maximizing and satisficing. Maximizers strive to identify the absolute best option, while satisficers, a term introduced by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, settle for an acceptable choice.
Studies conducted by Schwartz and his colleagues found a negative relationship between a tendency to maximize and feelings of life satisfaction. Maximizers, in comparison to satisficers, were more prone to experiencing post-decision regret. One possible explanation is that maximizers perpetually ruminate over alternative choices and dwell on how they could have made a better decision.
To counter the mental exhaustion induced by decision-making, the cultivation of habits emerges as an effective coping mechanism. According to the profound insights of William James, a prominent thinker of the 19th and 20th centuries, habits provide a means to navigate through life’s complexities. By relying on established routines, we can alleviate the need for excessive contemplation when confronted with everyday choices.
James’ ideas have significantly influenced contemporary researchers, such as psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” posits the existence of two distinct information processing mechanisms: system one and system two. System one operates unconsciously, swiftly, and intuitively, requiring minimal effort, while system two engages in purposeful thinking.
Personally, I have found solace in the habit of waking up at the same time every morning, sharing a loving moment with my wife, and brewing a cup of coffee. These activities have become ingrained routines that allow my system one to take charge, at least until I’ve had my first sip of coffee.
The American writer Merlin Mann once remarked that “thinking can be the enemy of action.” While not entirely subscribing to this notion, it does resonate with numerous psychological findings.
Herbert Simon’s concept of satisficing stemmed from the understanding that humans possess limited cognitive and other capacities, such as memory and attention. Engaging in excessive deliberation, such as pondering whether or not to exercise, can induce stress and undermine one’s intention to do so.
It is crucial to allocate our limited “decision-making juice” consciously, considering cognitive, emotional, and physical resources. Reducing the number of options available can also alleviate the decision-making process. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously adopted a simplified wardrobe, opting for similar outfits each day, to streamline his choices.
Embracing the reality of our finite decision-making capacity, developing beneficial habits, and allowing our unconscious system one to guide us can empower us to face the challenges of daily decision-making with confidence.