Reading time: 6min.

by Emily Lipscomb

Choice anxiety: Just another first world problem?

Imagine you’re in a car with a friend. You have just thirty minutes to get to your destination and she asks you to direct her. You know five possible routes, all of which have unpredictable congestion. It’s stressful: you feel burdened with the responsibility of singlehandedly determining the outcome of the journey and ensuring timely arrival. If you make a poor choice, it’s your fault. Now imagine there is only one road which leads to the destination; relieved of the burden of choice-making, you are freed from the prior anxiety.

What is it about abundant choice which acts as a catalyst for anxiety? Spoiled for choice, the chances of making a ‘bad’ decision increase exponentially. This in turn multiplies the potential for regret, dissatisfaction and guilt for one’s poor decision-making. To metaphorically paraphrase, would you rather sit a multiple-choice exam with six optional answers, or only two? It is widely iterated that with great power comes great responsibility. But such a conviction neglects the foreword and afterword: with increased choice comes great power, with great power comes great responsibility, but with great responsibility comes increased anxiety. In sum, increased choice = increased anxiety.

Barry Schwartz’ renowned psychology book, ‘The Paradox of Choice’, explores the correlation between the multitude of consumer choices and the prevalence of anxiety disorders. His argument is premised upon the observation that increases in product options (e.g. brands of shampoo) has led to depression and loneliness among shoppers. This is equivalent to the ‘choice overload hypothesis’: greater options of choice results in reluctant or demotivated decision-making, or disappointment in the chosen option. Buyers are spending a disproportionate amount of time making menial assessments, such as which cereal to buy, or which mobile network to join, and have consequently entered a form of anxious inertia. This can be evidenced in the recent proliferation of product and service comparison websites, capitalising on our indecisiveness.

But is the choice anxiety theorem just another first world problem? Is it a spoiled complaint about having too much agency? My sympathy would not extend too far, for example, to someone complaining of the stress of choosing an outfit due to having a wardrobe crammed full of clothing. To an audience of individuals lacking self-determination, or access to wide ranges of goods and services, our cries for decreased decision-making would surely sound indulgent and ignorant.

Yet the consequential increase in anxiety disorders is a cause for concern. Critics advocate a return to monopolies to minimise choice: if there was only one electricity provider, or a single car insurance company, the decision would be made for us. But this solution targets only the symptoms of the problem, not the causes. Instead we must address the illusion that a perfect choice exists, or that imperfect decision-making justifies intense feelings of self-hate, shame or remorse. This disproportionate, self-inflicted responsibility for every choice made has fatally blindsided us. We must take a step back to appreciate the freedom and empowerment which is embodied in the very process of choosing. Next time the stress of choice-making begins to surface, remember that too much choice is better than no choice at all.