When Too Many Choices Cause Us To Fail

The trap of information overload.

The most significant thing we do in life is make decisions. This applies equally to individuals, institutions, corporations and even governments.

Some decisions impact a larger number of persons than others. When a company decides, for instance, to declare itself bankrupt, it puts a number of persons, especially its employees and shareholders, at risk. Similarly, when President Bush decided to invade Iraq and bring about a regime change, his decision impacted the lives of millions of people across the globe; the repercussions of this decision continue to be felt.

Decisions, in other words, impact people other than those who take them. Many emphasise, therefore, on the critical importance of taking the right decision. This has spawned considerable management literature, especially on the importance of taking into account all options and choices, so that we might take a considered view and arrive at an informed decision.

Most of us are still fumbling with "why" we want something. The choice overload, consequently, confuses us. Believe me, that is precisely what it is meant to do.

This assumes that the more the information and thus, the choice or options, the higher the likelihood of arriving at the right decision.

Unfortunately, this is proven to be false. Choice and information overdose has resulted in decision paralysis. Instead of clarity, we are confronted by confusion.

American psychologist Barry Schwartz says that choice is a paradox. In his view, at a time of choice overload, more is actually less. He argues that excessive choice leads, in fact, to indecision. Schwartz draws attention to Professor Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University, who, along with her colleague, Mark Lepper, published a remarkable study conducted at a food market in the US. They demonstrated that, contrary to public perception, more choice does not necessarily lead to more purchases by consumers. Indeed, the opposite happens! More choice leads, in fact, to decision-making paralysis.

Failure to take the right decision is a cause of regret and can cause unhappiness. We feel we have let people who rely on us down. This results in suffering and anguish.

In mathematics, we are taught that complex algebraic equations can only be solved if we simplify them. There is a distinct parallel with life choices and decisions based on such choices. Unless we simplify, we are not likely to solve the equation.

Consumer societies, by their very nature, rely on choice overload to provide multiple options. The internet has complicated this further with an information overload. This makes decision-making seriously challenging!

Unless we know why we want something, we would find it difficult to decide on what we actually want. Unfortunately, most management literature, which is aimed essentially at servicing the requirements of business and industry, focus only on how decision-making might be improved. "How" or strategy comes much later. First, we need to know why. This is where most of us fail. Most of us are still fumbling with why we want something. The choice overload, consequently, confuses us. Believe me, that is precisely what it is meant to do.

No one would like to fail in decision-making. The three basic precepts to avoid this, in my view, are the following:

  1. Know why you want something;
  2. Once you know why, simplify the choice equation; and
  3. Recognise that everyone makes mistakes while taking decisions. Give yourself a break. Unless, of course, you happen to be the President of the United States!

Amit Dasgupta, a former diplomat, is working on his new book Why We Fail.