Have you ever walked into a store and lost it because there was so much selection? How about the opposite: Ever walked into a restaurant, looked at the menu, and thought, “Wow, this will be way harder than I thought…”. We are not alone. According to cognitive psychology, it turns out that too many options are paralyzing. One of the essential principles to keep top of mind in advertising and marketing is the illusion of choice.
For decades, cognitive psychologists have known that humans do not enjoy having too many choices, where there is a variety but little distinction between the options. An abundance of choices can lead to confusion, anxiety, and even unhappiness. This post will look at the “illusion of choice,” how it affects our decision-making, and how to overcome it.
What Is the Illusion of Choice?
The illusion of choice is a phenomenon that occurs when people feel like they have more control over their choices than they do or when they believe that the choices they make are independent of other people’s choices. So, how many options are too many?
It depends on what kind of decision you’re making and how vital each option is to you, but generally speaking, there are too many options when:
- You spend more time thinking about which one to choose than actually doing anything else with that time
- You can’t decide between two or three options (which are all comparable) because you keep thinking about other options
- You feel confused when looking at all your options because there are so many differences between them
The illusion of choice can be seen in many areas of life, including politics, business, and consumer products. Here are some examples:
- The classic example of the illusion of choice is choosing between different brands of soda pop. The choices are identical, but people often choose based on colors and labels rather than taste.
- In politics, the illusion of choice is present in most elections. The two major parties usually offer very similar candidates, and policies, so many voters feel they have no real options other than to vote for one or the other (or not).
- This can also be seen in video games, where players feel like they are making choices when they’re just being funneled into specific paths or outcomes by developers who want them to do certain things or play in particular ways.
Causes of the Illusion of Choice
Several factors, including causing the illusion of choice
1) Unlimited options
2) Misleading information about the options
3) Failure to recognize differences between the options
4) The way information is presented (e.g., people are more likely to choose what they see first)
5) The way people are grouped (e.g., if you’re grouped with others who made a particular decision, you’ll be less likely to make a different one)
The Illusion of Choice and Capitalism
Capitalism is based on the idea that individuals should be able to control their own lives and be free to choose how they live. However, psychologists argue that this notion of freedom is an illusion because corporations constantly control us through marketing and advertisements. They also state, “we live in a world where people are told what they want even before they know what they want.”
Consumers believe they have a choice in what they buy and where they spend their money. But this is not always true. Some businesses sell only one product or service, while others may offer several products with no difference beyond marketing tactics.
The illusion of choice gives customers the feeling that they are making an informed decision about what to buy or where to spend their money, but it does not always lead to the best possible outcome for them or society.
An excellent example of this is fast-food restaurants that claim to offer dozens of different kinds of burgers, fries, and drinks — all within one chain — but offer few real choices because many items are identical except for small details such as size or price. The menu may seem significant at first glance. Still, when you look closely at the options available for each category, you find yourself choosing from a minimal selection of options that differ only slightly from one another in terms of taste or quality.
The Illusion of Choice vs. Desirability Bias
The illusion of choice and desirability bias are two phenomena in many ways. The illusion of choice occurs when people believe they have many options when there are very few in reality. Desirability bias is when people think something is good because they want it to be good, even if it isn’t.
Both illusions can lead to poor decision-making and behavior. They can cause people to make choices based on vanity or false information rather than logic or rational thinking. This happens because the person perceives their choice as having more value than others (even though it doesn’t). This leads them to choose what seems like the best choice for them – even if it isn’t the best one for them!
Another similarity between these two phenomena is that both are present in many different contexts: from political elections (illusion of choice) to everyday purchases (desirability bias).
Signs of Problematic Decision-Making Related to the Illusion of Choice
There are many ways to describe the illusion of choice, but one of the most important is that it can signify problematic decision-making. When you feel like you have many options for a product or service, there are only two or three choices that matter; you may not be making the best decision for your needs.
Complex decision-making related to the illusion of choice involves people thinking they have more options than they do. This can lead to indecision and procrastination and an increased sense of anxiety and self-doubt.
People who suffer from this condition may feel like they have no control over their lives because they believe many different paths can be pursued. This does not mean that people with complex decision-making related to the illusion of choice cannot make decisions—they often struggle with making simple choices about what to eat for lunch!
Here are some signs that you might be experiencing problematic decision-making related to the illusion of choice:
- You find yourself obsessing over minor details or elements of your life that don’t matter.
- You question your ability based on what others say about you or your work.
- You have difficulty making decisions because there are so many options available, and it’s difficult for you to narrow them down to one choice.
Tips to Overcome the Illusion of Choice
It is no surprise that many of us have a hard time making decisions in our daily lives. But how can we improve our decision-making skills? We can take a few steps to help us make better decisions and improve our lives.
- Identify your priorities. Being overwhelmed is often a sign that you have too many things going on in your life and aren’t prioritizing the most important things. Take some time to write down all of the essential things to you and rank them in order of importance. This will help clarify what needs to be done first, second and third.
- Break it down into manageable steps. If you have a large project or task to complete, break it down into smaller pieces so that each step is not overwhelming. For example, if you need to write a book proposal, break it into chapters and then further into individual paragraphs until each paragraph is a manageable step.
- Get organized by creating lists or calendars of when specific tasks need to happen so that they don’t get lost in the shuffle of everyday life (or procrastination). If something must be completed by a specific date or time, write it down so there’s no chance of forgetting about it or putting off until tomorrow what should be done today!
When we talk about “choice,” we tend to assume multiple options are available. But in reality, this isn’t always the case. Our choices are limited to a select few because specific options were never considered or deemed unsuitable. Picking a different cereal than the one offered in your local grocery store doesn’t count as a natural choice; it’s more of an illusion.
While the illusion of choice is one of our cognitive biases, it’s a problematic bias to fight. With so many distractions available, it’s easy to be pulled in all directions by companies competing for our attention. It is, of course, worth keeping in mind that not all choices are created equal, and you’ve to think more complicated while choosing an option.
- Rudski, J. (2004). The illusion of control, superstitious belief, and optimism. Current Psychology, 22(4), 306–315. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-004-1036-8
- Klusowski, J., Small, D. A., & Simmons, J. P. (2021). Does choice cause an illusion of control? Psychological Science, 32(2), 159–172. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620958009