CHOICE PARALYSIS

If you’re super indecisive, psychology says technology is to blame

Decisions decisions…
Decisions decisions…
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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We believe that choice is a good thing, and today, we have plenty of it. From the number of potential dates on Tinder to the plethora of nature documentaries on Netflix and the brand of kitchen knives on Amazon, the meteoric rise in technology has spurred seemingly unlimited options for most decisions we make. Yet psychology suggests that more choice is not necessarily a good thing.

Having options intuitively makes sense: If we have lots of choices, we can choose exactly what we want. If we have fewer choices, we can’t. But this isn’t the way our brains work. Humans make better decisions when they’re only given a few choices instead of many.

This is because our brains evolved with limited working memory, meaning we can only consider a small set of information when making a decision. The more choice and information we have, the more it stretches the limits of our working memory, and the more stressed we feel. Choice makes us unhappier, too. For example, studies have shown that more choice in speed dating can make you less satisfied. In the snack world, instead of sticking with what is arguably the greatest Doritos flavor, Nacho Cheese, we now have to decide if we want Dinamita Fiery Habanero, Dinamita Chile Límon, Jacked Ranch Dipped Hot Wings, or any number of the fourteen totally absurd flavors that grace our grocery store aisles—and then we often leave the store feeling like we made the wrong decision.

While choices may make us feel more in control of our decisions, when faced with endless options, we are ironically less likely to make a choice. That’s because of what’s called “choice paralysis.” In a study of local grocery-store shoppers, patrons were presented with two different tasting booths: one that displayed six selections of jams, and another with 24. What researchers found was that more shoppers were initially attracted to the larger selection, but those exposed to the limited display were far more likely to actually make a purchase. This research—and much other like it—shows that the more options we’re exposed to, the harder it is to take the plunge—and that’s bad for both business and consumers.

This concept also applies to dating apps. Instead of choosing to flirt with the cutest of four or five eligible bachelors or bachelorettes at a friend’s dinner party, you have 3.5 million people to decide between on Tinder. This has led to a culture where people reject potential partners for the smallest reasons. One study (of many) found that increased exposure to options for finding a romantic partner actually yielded more choice paralysis, and online daters made worse choices about who they eventually picked.

But while technology has created overwhelming choice, it can also help us make the right one. In the same way it has proliferated choice, technology can help our waffling selves along the path to confident decision-making. Artificial intelligence is becoming a powerful tool for managing choice by reducing noise and allowing us to take advantage of our brain’s greatest asset: the ability to process emotions, context, and nuance.

AI can enhance the way we turn choices into decisions. In my time as the head of research at eHarmony, we worked hard to give clients the best chance at finding a satisfying long-term relationship. We had to strike the balance of offering people the choice they wanted while limiting the pool enough for clients to thoughtfully consider their options, making it more likely that they take action to communicate with those matches.

To manage the millions of choices they could make, we first ran all potential pairs through our matching algorithm, based on decades of marital research by academics, as well as our own surveys and experiments. The algorithm predicted which potential matches were most likely to lead to a satisfying long-term relationship, and cut out potential matches that didn’t fit the client’s preferences, like smoking habits, how far away they lived, and age. For years, we experimented to find the right number of daily matches, and in the end it worked. In a study of over 19,000 couples randomly selected from the US, those who met on eHarmony reported some of the highest satisfaction and lowest dissolution relative to those who met by other means (such as at work, through friends, or on Match.com).

Despite our success in leveraging AI to produce better choices in some arenas, many of the biggest decisions we make still do not take advantage of the right mix of technology and psychology. Consider the process of renting an apartment. Instead of blindly clicking around based on what we think we want and can afford, what if we harnessed technology to analyze our financial data, personal preferences, and lifestyles to bring the best options to the top? Sure, clicking “central air” and “pets” takes us one step in the right direction, but for all the flashy “tech-driven” realty platforms like Compass and Realtor.com, we have yet to find a solution that truly harnesses quality recommendation algorithms to narrow and personalize our search.

Companies are failing to recognize the very real and valuable potential of leveraging technology to enhance human capacity. The truth is that technology does have the potential to do certain things humans cannot, and this includes both providing and eliminating choice. If we design technology to streamline menial tasks and narrow the choices that overwhelm us psychologically, we can optimize the ways in which we answer more complex, nuanced, emotional questions that computers can’t be programmed to resolve.

By outsourcing some of our decision-making to machines, we can free up our mental capacity and optimize human decision-making where it matters most. Embracing a future in which technology is designed to reduce the quantity of choices may be humanity’s ticket to making smarter, happier, more efficient decisions in the future.