Having choices is essential to having a sense of autonomy in life. In a culture that highly values having choices, it is easy to believe that having more choices is better. Yet, in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz contests this assumption by providing a series of arguments documenting how having more choices can be detrimental to our well-being. In this short review, I will showcase how our choices about how we make choices can expose us to numerous cognitive distortions.
Most adults have felt something that I would describe as choice paralysis. It’s a sense of being overwhelmed, stressed, and uncertain regarding a decision. Generally, these feelings grow from too much information rather than ignorance of the subject. I’m more likely to feel choice paralysis with simple questions like where to go for dinner rather than major decisions like determining where to live. With something simple like dinner, it’s easy to believe that there is the best choice. Something big, like where to live, is very complex; therefore, compromise is part of the thought process. Schwartz believes this decision-making stress will most likely arise when we attempt to find the best option possible. He describes this character action as maximizing.
On the other side, we make many choices we give so little thought they do not feel like a decision. What type of coffee do you drink in the morning, or where do you head when you set out on an evening walk? These choices don’t bring about decision paralysis because we are content with good enough. I like coffee; it’s what I drink. This character action is the behavior of the satisfier, as defined by Schwarts.
The author highlights an important note throughout the book that each individual tends to be a maximizer for specific choices and a satisfier for others. Yet those individuals who attempt to maximize more choices also tend to take less pleasure from positive events, take longer to rebound from adverse events, and ruminate for longer periods over past events. The more likely you are to look for the optimal choice, the more likely you will experience lasting negative impacts with that choice.
These are significant consequences for something that, in many cases, isn’t all that important. I couldn’t walk away with the simple description that making well-informed choices lead to bad feelings. There had to be something about our treatment of those choices. How do we deal with the process that is bringing about these negative emotional responses? As the symptoms of being a heavy maximize seem to align with those leading to depression, I pulled together a little thought experiment to understand how Cognitive Distortions fit within the decision-making framework.
A Tale of the Maximizer : The Best Fried Chicken
George is a maximizer when it comes to eating out. When he learned that his out-of-town friends were coming to visit, he offered to take them out for dinner. His guest expressed an interest in fried chicken, so naturally, George sought the best-fried chicken place in the town(1).
George starts researching the options by investigating the top-rated chicken places in his town. He relies on the reviews of others to weigh the pros and cons of each establishment. One location stands out with 500 plus 5-star reviews, but George can’t shake that specific one-star review (2). The negative review is so vividly detailed that he can readily imagine his visit going the same way(3). George knows that his guest would surely hate this location and probably him if something like that happened to them (4). After hours of reviewing, George eventually determines a chicken place based on a food critic’s opinion(5).
When the guests arrive, George takes them to the chosen fried chicken place. While the guests enjoy the food, George constantly compares how the experience doesn’t match that described by the stellar review and lets his newly found negative feelings change his view on the food(6). While wrapping up the dinner, George can’t help wondering just how much better that other chicken place could have been, and he starts apologizing for bringing his guest to this less-than-perfect fried chicken spot(7). He expounds on how he only chose this place because of the review from the food critic, who he now knows to be a lousy judge of fried chicken(8,9).
While all this mental turmoil took place in George’s head, his unassuming guests had a satisfying meal. They came to the dinner not looking for the best but looking for the option. They met and ate with a friend, and that was enough.
- all or nothing thinking: Even though there are many chicken places, George believes that the best-fried chicken place exists rather than many high-quality chicken places.
- discounting the positives: The single negative review outweighs the numerous positive ones.
- over-generalization: Because a lousy thing happened before you believe it is likely to happen again
- jumping to conclusions: George assumes that he and his guest would respond similarly to this hypothetical situation described in the review.
- magnification: The quality of a single review outweighs the breadth of information that George has collected.
- emotional reasoning: George gets upset, which translates to his subjective assessment of everything else around him.
- should statement: George is evaluating a past choice and letting it influence his own experience of the moment.
- personalization and blame, and 9. Labeling: George doesn’t take responsibility for his choice and justifies it by placing a negative classification on someone else.
The Cost of Maximizing
While this is an exaggeration, it’s easy to see the opportunity for cognitive distortions to arise when you search for the best thing possible. While looking for quality is important, it’s best to spend your decision-making time identifying what is good enough. Once you know where that boundary of acceptable quality lies, a good choice passes that single metric.
As with most character traits, this is a learned process. The more you try to maximize elements of your life, the more you brush up against these cognitive distortions. Dealing with these distortions should be left to times when it matters. Choose your choices wisely.-->