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As our worlds shrink to within five kilometres of our homes, many of us will no doubt be feeling the scope of choices available to us has diminished significantly.
But, guess what? Research from the fields of psychology and behavioural economics suggests that might not be as terrible as you think.
In lockdown you have freedom from choice.Credit:Louise Kennerley
In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less, American psychologist, Barry Schwartz, put forward the controversial thesis that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, including choice.
Of course, the theory applies best to the citizens of affluent, peaceful and free nations, and, additionally, the individuals within such societies who enjoy equal access to all those economic resources and liberties. For the excluded, the increased choices that would come from higher incomes and greater civil liberties would undoubtedly be a good thing.
But for many comfortably well-off people – and I count myself among them – it is not true either that an ever rising scope of choices will make us happier and, conversely, that the removal of some choices will necessarily make us less happy.
Rather than liberating us, the existence of too much choice – of jeans, of cars, or places to visit – can result in analysis paralysis and decision fatigue.
In his 2005 TED talk, Schwartz identified the four main ways that the existence of greater choice makes us miserable.
First, it exposes us to feelings of regret – both anticipatory and real. In analysing a set of competing choices, we fear making the wrong decision. And even when our decision is made, we wonder if we could have been happier with a different choice.
Internet dating has highlighted the problem more recently. If you live in a small town and simply marry the boy or girl next door, it may be easy to console yourself that their annoying habits are simply the price of love. In the world of internet dating, however, even the smallest of foibles in a partner has us contemplating the alternatives that might be out there.
“The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose,” says Schwartz.
In lockdown life, the options for entertainment are severely constrained. On the upside, no one need worry that they might have had a nicer time jumping in the car to get away for the weekend. That wasn’t an option, so you can’t regret your choice to watch Netflix instead.
Second, Schwartz argues that too much choice can be bad because it increases the “opportunity cost” of our time.
Economists have long known that the true cost of something is the totality of what you give up to get it – not just time and money, but the loss of the alternative best use of your time.
In a world where many pleasurable alternatives exist, these costs are potentially high. But in lockdown land, those alternatives are few, so the decision to take a simple course of action, such as a walk to the park, is less costly.
Third, Schwartz argues that the proliferation of choice leads to escalating expectations, which negatively affect our enjoyment of any activity.
“Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be,” he says. As a result, we are more exposed to disappointment with our choices, even when they’re good ones.
In lockdown life, our expectations of joy subside. This actually increases the likelihood of being pleasantly surprised, be it by a nice chat with a neighbour or a particularly sunny walk.
“The secret to happiness is low expectations,” says Schwartz.
Fourth and finally, a limited choice structure enables people to blame any unhappiness they do feel on the circumstances they’re in, rather than blaming themselves. Unhappy during a pandemic? Totally acceptable. Feeling unhappy when everything is going along as normal? There must be something wrong with you.
Critically, how people respond to a reduction in the array of choices they face will depend on whether they’re a “maximiser” or a “satisficer”. The later term was coined by the Nobel prize-winning American economist Herbert A. Simon in the 1950s. Simon was one of the first in the profession to really question the “homo economicus” model of rational decision-making.
Maximisers are known for always striving to arrive at the optimal solution to any problem. But in their striving, they actually experience lower levels of satisfaction, both because they’ve spent so much time deliberating and also because they continue to worry if they have achieved the optimal solution.
Satisficers aim for “good enough” and usually get it.
Interestingly, it is the maximisers of the world (and I am one) who potentially have the most to gain from lockdowns. Deprived of alternatives to consider, we just have to content ourselves with the limited choices available.
So strap up your shoelaces, folks, and walk around the block.
Sure, it might not be the finest, most picturesque walk in town (or, indeed, the world), but it’s the only choice you have right now. And it’s highly unlikely you’ll regret it.
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