The Problem of Too Many Options

We all like options. No one wants to open the refrigerator and find only one thing to eat. Or go to Flixster and find only one movie to see. Or turn on the radio to find only one station to listen to. We all like to have an array of options to choose from but is it possible that too many choices don’t bring happiness but instead foster dissatisfaction? That’s the argument of Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.

Schwartz and his research appear in two articles that show how too many options can actually harm your marriage and your kids. The first article, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy“, is by Lori Gottlieb and appeared in The Atlantic. It also served as the basis of the Legacy Lunch hosted at The Crossing last Sunday. Toward the end of the article Gottlieb marshals evidence for the counter intuitive idea that parents give their kids too many choices.

Barry Schwartz, at Swarthmore, believes that well-meaning parents give their kids so much choice on a daily basis that the children become not just entitled, but paralyzed. “The ideology of our time is that choice is good and more choice is better, he said. “But we’ve found that’s not true.”

In study after study it’s found that the more options kids have the more difficulty they have in being happy with whatever they choose and the more difficult it is to stick by their choice.

What does this have to do with parenting? Kids feel safer and less anxious with fewer choices, Schwartz says; fewer options help them to commit to some things and let go of others, a skill they’ll need later in life.

Take something as benign as choosing a meal at a restaurant. Have you ever thought a menu had too many options? The more options you have, the more likely you are to regret your decision or at least wonder if there wasn’t something better that you mistakenly passed over.  This all becomes more serious when kids have to choose where to live or what job to accept. Speaking of kids graduating from college, Schwartz says…

“They can’t bear the thought that saying yes to one interest or opportunity means saying no to everything else, so they spend years hoping that the perfect answer will emerge. What they don’t understand is that they’re looking for the perfect answer when they should be looking for the good-enough answer.

The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life–that, as Dan Kindlon, the psychologist from Harvard, puts it “if they ever feel a twinge of non-euphoria, there should be another option.” Mogel puts it even more bluntly: what parents are creating with all this choice are anxious and entitled kids whom she describes as “handicapped royalty.”

The second place that too many options can hurt us is in marriage and relationships. Dan Slater’s article, “A Million First Dates“, appears in the most current edition of The Atlantic. The article tells the story of Jacob’s dating life and how the ease of finding new women through online dating sites made it harder for him to make a commitment to the woman he was currently involved with no matter how wonderful she was.

Here’s what he said after breaking up with Rachel whom he described as young, beautiful and very compatible with him.

“I’m about 95% certain,” he says, “that if I’d met Rachel offline, and if I’d never done online dating, I would’ve married her. At that point in my life, I would’ve overlooked everything else and done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. It didn’t seem like there was going to be much of a mourning period, where you stare and the wall thinking you’re destined to be alone and all that. I was eager to see what else was out there.”

It’s possible that online dating, and the endless choices it offers, raises the bar too high and makes it too easy to meet someone new. Gian Gonzaga, the eHarmony relationship psychologist says, “But you could also easily see a world in which online dating leads to people leaving relationships the moment they’re not working–an overall weakening of commitment.”

And of course the business model of online dating sites only works if they have repeat customers. Too many committed relationships is bad for the bottom line.

This leads us back to Barry Schwartz and the problems that come with the seeming endless choices of partners found on the internet.

“Moreover, the mere fact of having chosen someone from such a large set of options can lead to doubts about whether the choice was the “right” one. No studies in the romantic sphere have looked at precisely how the range of choices affects overall satisfaction. But research elsewhere has found that people are less satisfied when choosing from a larger group: in one study, for example, subjects who selected a chocolate from an array of six options believed it tasted better than those who selected the same chocolate from an array of 30.”

This is all further evidence that what Paul teaches in Philippians 4:13 is true. The secret of contentment is not found in the options we have to choose from nor the choice we make but in the Lord. For those of us that are parents we must help not only ourselves learn this but also our kids.

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