When Alison Gibbins, a British Dubai-based personal assistant, decided she wanted to quit her full-time job, return to the UK and study for a master’s degree, she thought she had managed the most difficult part of the decision process. She quickly found, however, that this was just the start. “I wanted to continue my studies in psychology so I began my search through the British Psychological Society’s website, where I downloaded a list of the universities that offered the course.
From there I had to narrow it down to one. But I just couldn’t do it… I was so overwhelmed by the options and what I had to consider for each, that I gave up and decided to apply next year instead. I literally made myself ill over making the right decision and I couldn’t deal with the stress of it all.” But it’s not just the bigger decisions that Alison obsesses over; she confesses that even something as trivial as choosing between fabric softeners at the supermarket stresses her out.
“When it comes to making a decision – from what to eat in a restaurant, to which university degree to opt for – I find it emotionally exhausting and stressful, and it’s even caused me to have panic attacks.” And to make matters worse, even if Alison does make a decision, she finds it difficult to move on. “After making a choice, I still cannot help but wonder whether the decision I made was the right one,” she says.
The maximiser personality
Alison is what psychologists call a maximiser – someone who deliberates and obsesses over every choice before and after making one; they are the opposite of satisficers who are mainly content with their decisions. “Maximisers tend to experience anxiety around decisions as they want to make the best choice,” explains Devika Singh, psychologist at the Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre.
“This tendency may be rooted in past experience or be part of a personality predisposition. Sometimes this is a learned behaviour, which takes a strong personal commitment to change.”
Research conducted by Joyce Ehrlinger at Florida State University found that maximisers are less satisfied by the choices they make than satisficers, because their focus on finding the best option weakens their commitment to the final item they choose. “Maximisers get nervous when they see an ‘All sales are final’ sign because it forces them to commit,” explains Joyce.
Maximisers are also likely to be less happy overall, as they focus so much on making the right choice, and so never fully commit to a decision. “The maximiser personality is usually unhappy with the decision they’ve made because they keep questioning if they’ve made the right one,” explains Patrick Wanis, a human behaviour and relationship expert and author of How To Find Happiness.
Too many options?
But it’s not just people with the maximiser personality who have a tough time when it comes to choosing. Experts suggest that due to the endless possibilities and choices we have every day – from the many variations of Starbucks coffee, to the 50 packs of pasta on the supermarket shelves – even non-maximisers are finding it difficult to commit to decisions and to be happy with the choices they make.
Barry Schwartz, a renowned US psychologist, discusses in his book The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less how despite the fact modern Americans have more choice than ever before, they do not seem to be reaping any psychological benefits from it. In fact, Barry argues that we need to reduce the number of options we have in order to reduce our current levels of anxiety. “Too much choice is tyrannical because people find it too hard to make a decision,” explains Barry. “They can see the flaws with each option and worry they will regret whichever one they choose.”
You might assume that more choice is a positive thing; having lots of options should mean we find the perfect match for our needs. But whether it’s big decisions (to have a baby or to change jobs) or an everyday decision (which magazine to subscribe to or baby food brand to buy) women today are often paralysed when it comes to picking their own path in life.
The choister generation
In their book The Choice Effect: Love and Commitment in an Age of Too Many Options three women explore this social phenomenon, which they argue impacts 20- to 40-somethings in particular – a generation they dub ‘the choisters’ – who have been raised on a diet of endless possibilities. A choister, they say, is someone inundated by choices who has the belief that the world is their oyster.
It’s the ‘grass is always greener’ generation – a maximiser but one society has created, rather than it being an inherent part of their personality. “When you feel like the world is your oyster, you’re scared by the idea that you perhaps haven’t realised your potential as well as you could have,” explains one of the authors, Amalia McGibbon. “You’re scared of making a choice and losing all the other options, which may be equally shiny and tempting.”
In fact, ‘keeping my options open’ has become a bit of a mantra for the choister generation, who may find it difficult to commit to a relationship, for example, as someone better could pop around the corner at any time. It’s like we’ve become perfectionists, scared of settling for less than we deserve, which can result in making no decisions at all. And Sophie*(name has been changed) knows all about this.
Having walked away from four loving relationships in the past 16 years, with men who all proposed, Sophie, aged 39, remains single and is fretting about never having children. “They were all kind, successful men who I loved being with, but just could not commit to,” she says. “I umm’ed and ahh’ed over all of them, but could never make that decision. My mum, who I always criticised for marrying the first man she met, would say to me ‘for God’s sake, just marry him’… but I could never make that decision.
I believed my knight in shining armour would arrive soon – someone shinier, someone superior – so I held out for something more, but it never came.” This ‘shiny ball syndrome’ as clinical psychologist Funke Baffour calls it, is common and one where individuals, like Sophie, don’t make decisions because they get sidetracked by tempting diversions. And the more choices we have in life, the more paralysed we can feel, leaving us frozen in the decision stakes.
Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland calls it ‘option paralysis’, which describes our tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none. Patrick says he too believes this inaction has arisen due to too many choices, leading us to question which is the right one. “We then start thinking of the potential negative consequences of making the wrong choice, leading to option paralysis,” he says.
A famous study conducted by business professor Sheena Iyengar in the mid-1990s highlights this. A jam-tasting booth was set up in a store, where every few hours researchers would alternate between offering samples of six and 24 different flavours of jam. Whilst the table with 24 choices attracted more people, the six-jam table prompted a larger percentage of shoppers to purchase jars, showing how having too many choices can prevent us from making one.
Patrick explains that the tendency to come to an easy decision when there are fewer choices is something we all experience. “When we have too many choices we question ourselves: Which is the best one? Which is the right one? We especially do this if we fear failure, if we think we’re not good enough, or if we think that if we make the wrong decision there will be serious consequences. So the more choices we have, the greater the stress, because we sit there analysing each choice until we finally can’t make one,” says Patrick.
So what are the negative psychological effects of being a maximiser or a choister? Devika says both spend far too much time analysing the past, which can lead to excessive worry about the future. “This isn’t the same as pessimism, because they see the positive in a situation as well, they just don’t always act for the fear that it might not be the optimum choice, or the choice that gives them the maximum satisfaction,” she explains So, in a world where we are inundated with choice, how can we stop becoming paralysed by it and make decisions more easily without regret?
Devika says that sometimes it can help to focus on the choices you have already made, especially the ones that didn’t involve a lot of deliberation, but were still satisfactory. “Research on decision-making processes has shown that it is not always advisable to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before making a choice, especially for complex matters such as buying a house,” she says.
“After the basics have been approved in your mind, there is a point of a marginal satisfaction between the options. In fact, if it were a significant difference, the choice would be easier. Researchers call this the ‘deliberation without attention’ effect, stating that some decisions should be left to more subconscious processes rather than spending days consciously deliberating complex decisions.
So my tip would be to trust your mind and body’s ability to engage in rapid cognition – a concept beautifully written about by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink.” Patrick has similar advice: We should practise making smaller decisions by following our intuition and gut feeling. “Be aware that what is really driving you is this fear of perfectionism, which means at some level you don’t think you’re good enough and you’re seeking others’ approval. Try to reduce your choices and look at less options,” he says.
Amalia meanwhile advises working out your ‘non-negotiables’ – or the value and criteria most important to you. That way it’s easier to spot and stop being tempted by ideas or options that are fundamentally unsuitable. Then, learn to accept that you’ll probably have to compromise on anything that isn’t on your non-negotiable list. She also advises setting yourself a reasonable time frame in which to make a decision… “There’s picky, and then there’s being paralysed. Ask yourself – whether you’re choosing a pair of shoes, a healthcare plan or a spouse – ‘how long should this take?’”
The bottom line is that sometimes you just have to take a chance on a choice, rather than keep deliberating about it – a message self-confessed maximiser Alison is now taking on board. “Next year, I’m going to create a list of criteria, give myself a time limit, make a decision on the best university course and then just go for it. Let’s see what happens...”