Adding options increases expectations people have about how good they will be and, Schwartz says, that produces less satisfaction with the results, even when they are good.

I recently needed a new stapler because my old one broke. I thought it would be a fairly simple thing and went to my local stationery store. There was only one model and when I asked the clerk about it, he shrugged. Because I already own three lousy staplers, back to Amazon I went. I quickly found one that could handle 40 sheets and decided to take a quick look at the reviews, which were astounding. There were 837 reviews and 30 questions answered. At that point, I couldn’t resist and down the rabbit hole I went. People were so excited about this stapler they took time to write glowing reviews and pass along tips for maximum benefits. From a stapler.

One person wrote: “I know—it’s stupid to get all worked up over a stapler. I just want simple things in my life to work smoothly so that I can focus on the things that are difficult. This stapler helps me do that.” Another wrote: I LOVE THIS STAPLER. I know that staplers shouldn’t be thoroughly loved like this one, but I LOVE THIS.”

Did you notice that both of these rave reviews included self-shaming for loving the stapler? And there were questions too—would the stapler open up for use on bulletin boards or murals? Is it quiet?

I am not putting down those who enjoy office supplies. Everyone has their thing and I sincerely wish I could work up some degree of passion for them. I only read the reviews because the sheer number of them intrigued me. What gives me pause is that every purchase now can be vetted through online reviews and it slows down the process for regular, routine items. For enthusiasts of that thing, it’s wonderful, but if it’s just one more sundry item you need for a smoothly running and stapling office, it can be an unwelcome exercise of due diligence to consider the comments about every product. Although, I have to admit that I was looking forward to using the stapler when it arrived.

In addition to reviews and commentary, the number of products has never been greater. Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz addressed this in his TED talk titled “The Paradox of Choice” in which he examines the results on our psyche of having so much choice in the modern era. Schwartz gives some examples of how choice has exploded with his local supermarket where, despite not being a huge store, has 285 types of cookies, 40 varieties of toothpaste and 175 salad dressings, not including 10 types of extra virgin olive oil and 12 types of balsamic vinegar should you choose to make your own.

Schwartz describes how the “explosion of choice” has opened for consideration many things that used to be taken for granted such as when, how and who to marry along with the small ones like what kind of stapler to buy. “So everywhere we look, big things and small things, material things and lifestyle things, life is a matter of choice … . And the question is, is this good news, or bad news? The answer is yes.”

We already know what is good about having options, so Schwartz focuses on two negative effects it is having on people.

The first is decision paralysis. Schwartz gives an example a colleague found at Vanguard, “… the gigantic mutual-fund company of about a million employees and about 2,000 different workplaces. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down 2 percent. You offer 50 funds—10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose, that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and of course tomorrow never comes.” Paralysis, says Schwartz, is a consequence of having too many choices.

A second effect is that, paradoxically, the more options we have, the less satisfied we are with our choices. There are a few reasons for this. If you don’t like the salad dressing you chose, over the 174 others, it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different, better choice. “And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.”

Another reason is opportunity cost because when there are many alternatives, it is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives you rejected and that make you less satisfied with the alternative that you picked. This happened when my husband and I had to replace our coffee maker recently. All of the models had pluses and minuses, positive and negative reviews. When the one we selected arrived, I found myself wondering if another one with different options would have suited us better. Schwartz says “Opportunity costs subtract from the satisfaction we get out of what we choose, even when what we choose is terrific.”

And a third reason we are less satisfied is escalation of expectations. Schwartz, who was born in 1945, waxes nostalgic about a time when there was only one type of blue jeans to buy. “I went to replace my jeans after years of wearing these old ones, and I said, “I want a pair of jeans. Here’s my size.” And the shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, tapered, blah blah.” On and on he went. My jaw dropped. And after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.””

Adding options increases expectations people have about how good they will be and, Schwartz says, that produces less satisfaction with the results, even when they are good. When there is only one option and you are dissatisfied, you won’t blame yourself because you had no choice. But when there are hundreds of choices, there is no excuse for failure. “And so when people make decisions, and even though the results of the decisions are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves,” according to Schwartz.

How do you make good decisions while avoiding this phenomenon?

  • Limit decision-making to what you care about most deeply. Consider the relative importance of the decision before you in terms of priority and duration. For example, I watched a woman perseverate for 15 minutes at the nail salon over what color to choose. If she wanted to reclaim that time, she could make a decision and stick with it as her signature shade, or she could quickly grab a new color every time and acknowledge that it will only last a week or two, having no permanent significance. Steve Jobs and Barack Obama were known for wearing the same clothes all the time to avoid wardrobe decision-making and simplify life.
  • Tap into your network. Chances are you know people who research their purchases doggedly. I have a friend like that and when I found out he was searching for a new mattress, I made it a point to find out what he chose so I could save myself that work. If Barry Schwartz is correct, chances are I would be even happier with the choice than my friend because his research raised expectations.
  • Become a treasurer of time. Your 24 hours should serve you well and represent your priorities. Be mindful of how much time you want to devote to deciding and then make a choice with the data you already have.

As the stapler reviewer so aptly wrote, we all want the simple things in our lives to work smoothly so we can focus on things that are difficult. If we use up our decision-making energy on discerning the best salad dressing and toothpaste, there will be less left for our careers, relationships and health.

Reprinted with permission from the April 25, 2018 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2018 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, or visit