Choosing is a skill
If you're reading this post, you're at a point in your life where you have to choose the door you're going to walk through (literally), but can you bear the thought of choosing the wrong door?
And it's not just one single choice, it's several choices over a long period of time! Choosing the type of house, the area, which type of loan/mortgage you want to commit to and with which bank, selecting a solicitor, a surveyor, which renovation works to do, which builders to hire.....
Through books, TED talks and podcasts I collected some information that you might find useful - it really resonated with my personal experience, so I'm including bits and pieces that resonated the most with me. All the resources are listed at the end of the post.
What are choice assumptions we should be aware of?
(1) If it's something that affects you, you should be the one to make the decision.
People who have the assumption that by making their own choices, they remain 'true to themselves' perform worse if a task is dictated by someone else. However, it's a mistake to think that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone - in many cultures, the individual's preferences are shaped by their family, so they turn choosing into a collective exercise.
While you may not need the 'collective' wisdom for every choice.. maybe a few choices might be easier if you rely on others.
(2) More is better.
Unlimited choice is more attractive in theory than in practice. We wrongly assume that to be happy we need more freedom, which correspond to more choice; however, while some choice is important and it's better than none, it does not follow that more choice is better.
More on that in the next paragraph!
(3) Never say no to choice.
Do you always want or need to have the burden of making a choice? This can range from trivial choices such as what you're going to have for dinner, to life changing choices such as 'should I buy that €350k house that I really like, even if the mortgage will be huge?'.
Personally, I'm more satisfied having bought a fixer-upper with a small loan, knowing that it will take time to make it look as good as the €350k house, but I won't be indebted for long.
What makes a choice 'hard'?
What makes a choice hard is how the alternatives relates: in an easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall ... which also means that not all hard choices are 'big' choices.
In a hard choice situation, the alternatives are not equally good: if that were the case you can simply flip a coin to choose. It's also a mistake to think that there's truly a better alternative, and that you just don't have all the information to know which one it is: there is no best option.
So how do you decide? You decide by creating reasons for yourself: you decide you are the kind of person for whom country living is preferable to the urban life. By deciding what type of person you want to be, you become that person.
How many choices can we handle at a time?
A few studies indicate that the average human can handle comparing one variable between 7 choices; say choosing between 7 apples by comparing their price. However, we get overwhelmed when we have to do the math and compare and contrast between 7+ apples and compare multiple variables such as colour, weight, shape, price, taste, etc. Or even fewer choices but many more variables.
Ultimately, too many choices lead to confusion and inaction: you delay choosing, you anticipate regretting your choice, your expectations are through the roof for the choice you've made ... and you'll likely blame yourself for the wrong choice and feel unsatisfied in the end.
It's easy to imagine you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is that 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!
Let me give you an example: if I can choose only one type of apple, I don't have particular expectations about its flavour. However, if I can choose between 200 apples, one of them should be the most delicious apple I've ever tasted! My expectations are so high that if the one I choose is good, but not perfect, I'll be disappointed and blame myself.
Rational decision or gut choice?
There's also to consider that there are two distinct ways in which we can choose: by rationally analysing all the options, or by gut feeling. That's exactly how our brain works as well: there's a more rational, deliberative area (prefrontal cortex) and a more emotional, deeper system. They are constantly competing to help you make choices... and if the rational area is busy choosing between the 7 apples, it's likely that the more instinctual area will take over for any additional choices you need to make.
Furthermore, no matter how much you think a choice is dictated by a rational reasoning, it's always linked to our unconscious: there's always an underlying layer of feelings, experiences, memories, expectation from other people, peer pressure, etc. that helped us decide.
To clarify, we associate certain emotions with each new situation, and each time you encounter the same situation, all this past 'wisdom' of emotions and experiences bubbles up to help you make a decision.
Not only our 'emotional side' is always there when we make a choice but it can also be influenced to a certain point: if I ask you to hold a hot cup of tea, you'll likely feel warmer towards me when we speak - that's not a coincidence.
How does a house make you feel when you walk in? If you have to choose between two houses, where did you feel most comfortable?
What should we do to help us decide?
Here are some things we can do to help us choose:
- Reduce the number of choices (can you clearly tell apart the different choices? If not get rid of them)
- Concretize your options (Make your choices feel more real - imagine what the outcome of a choice would look like in your life)
- Categorising your choices (instead of having to choose between 15 houses, you categorise them, e.g. house vs. apartment, and choose between those, and continue to narrow down the categories as you make choices).
- Increase gradually the complexity of your choices. Start with the basics first and then go into the details (e.g. choose whether you want 1 or 2 bathrooms, and then what type of tiles).
Lastly, you should keep in mind that all your worrying and longing to make the 'right' choice is overblown: happiness can be "synthesized" - we have within ourselves the ability to manufacture happiness, which several studies show, is as real as ‘natural happiness’.
We believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as ‘natural happiness’: it’s what we ‘make’ when we don’t get what we really wanted. However, consider the ‘free choice paradigm”: when there are constraints to the number of choices you have and you have limited ability to choose... you end up being more satisfied with the choice you made.
In other words, you learned to accept things you cannot change and you were happy with them.
Sheena Iyengar - How to make choosing easier
Sheena Iyengar - the art of choosing
Dan Gilbert - ‘The surprising science of happiness’
Ruth Chang - how to make a hard choice
Radiolab podcast episode 'Choice' (with additional papers)
Dan Ariely - Are we in control of our decisions
Barry Schwartz - The paradox of choice
Malcolm Gladwell - Happiness, choice and spaghetti sauce
Renata Salecl - the unhealthy obsession with choices
Hidden Brain podcast episode - Me, Myself, and IKEA