The paradox of choice

As I was walking through the famous markets in Siem Reap targeted at tourist, I noticed that I was particularly indecisive about picking a restaurant. Restaurants were lined up on the streets, one next to the other, and as we walked passed, there was someone standing in the front, trying desperately to show us the menu and inviting us in. I was only there for one night, so I wanted to be sure that we were going to experience the most delicious local food Siem Reap had to offer.

When we finally settled on a restaurant that was bustling with business, I looked at the menu, only to find another abundance of choices to make. There was a range of noodles to choose from, ranging from rice noodle, thick of thin egg noodle, glass noodles, and vermicelli. They can be cooked in a variety of ways including dry (no soup), soup, fried, and stir-fried. Next, you need to pick the type of protein whether it would be chicken, duck, pork, beef, lamb, fish, prawns, seafood, tofu, or all of the above, or none of the above. Chilli or no chilli? What was I to choose?

I sat there for a while looking at the menu, images of the combinations of food racing through my mind, not knowing what to decide one. After what must have seemed like an eternity for the waitress waiting impatiently for me to order, I impulsively ordered the a bowl of dry egg noodles with shredded boiled chicken. Mild chilli please.

My meal arrived in no time and I must say, the noodles was good and it hit the spot. However, as I was eating, I noticed in the corner of my eye that the waitress placed down a mouth-watering plate of fried rice with two jumbo grilled prawns on the table next to mine. The prawns looked divine and I instantly regretted ordering the chicken, and wished I ordered that instead.

This is the phenomenon that is essentially the Paradox of Choice. The more choice one is given, the more likely we are to be unsatisfied with the choice we have made.

We celebrate freedom of choice in our democratic countries and it is no wonder that people ideally believe that we are happy about being given a choice, in fact the more choices the better. However, psychologist Barry Schwartz dispels this belief with a compelling argument and presents us with research to substantiate his ideas. He proposes that when we are given an abundance of options to choose from, the overwhelmingly infinite selection actually paralyses us, exhausts our energies and limits our quality of life.

The more choice we are given, the higher our expectations, the more we question our decision and finally, the more we blame ourselves for our decisions.

In fact, the broader the options, the poorer the decisions. The stress stemming from the mind-boggling range is so devastating that one does not attempt to critically evaluate the their decision. Ultimately, it seems that when you give someone a plethora of choice, the more unhappier, the more unsure and unsatisfied they are will their final choice.

It raises expectations, and drives us towards expecting perfection. With so many choices, how can you not find the perfect one? Therefore, we end up being unhappy with our decision despite it being a good option.

What is one to do then? Based on the paradox of choice, it seems that the secret to happiness is to lower one’s expectations. As we have all heard, the grass is always greener on the other side.


Schwartz, Barry (2004) The paradox of choice: Why more is less

Dobelli, Rolf (2013). The art of thinking clearly. Sceptre: London.