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Choices, choices, choices

By Linnea N. Meyer '14  |  october, 2013, Issue 1
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According to Linnea (and behavioral science) we may be happier with a smaller set of choices.


Whether you're a first-year or second-year, as you came onto campus this fall, you were bombarded with choices. Which classes to take and student groups to join? Who to study with and who to hang out with at TNDC? Which companies to network with, recruit at, and sign your life to?

Chances are, across all of these choices, you'd prefer to have as many options as possible and keep those options open as long as possible, maximizing your freedom of choice. But chances'd be happier doing the opposite.

What? That can't be right! This is America, the land where buffets of unlimited meal varieties and return policies that never expire are fundamental to our pursuit of happiness.

Except that...they're not. Evidence from behavioral science suggests that our instinct to increase our options and delay our commitments may be a bit off. We may, in fact, be better off simplifying, narrowing and committing earlier to our choices.

Simplify choices: People tend to agonize over and make errors with complex choices. Consider a study on Medicare Part D, conducted by a team of academics and ideas42, a non-profit behavioral science consultancy (Disclosure: I interned there this summer). In the study, seniors presented with clear comparisons between a limited set of plan options better grasped potential cost savings, switched more often and ultimately saved more money.

The lesson for Boothies? Figure out ways to reduce complexity in your choices. Talk to Career Advisors and past interns to compare the pros and cons of career paths. Similarly, evaluate the student groups that interest you by metrics such as time commitment, fees, total members, career applicability and, of course, plain good fun.

Narrow choices: Those of you who were lucky enough to take Professor Richard Thaler's class last spring already know this one: people feel frustrated over and even freeze up when they face too many choices. In a much-cited study led by Professor Sheena Iyengar, grocery shoppers more often stopped to examine a display of twenty-four flavors of jam rather than a display of ten flavors, but far more actually bought a jar (by a factor of ten!) when faced with the smaller display.

The lesson for Boothies? Taking some options off the table – whether it be the option to study on Thursday night (because you know that won't actually happen) or a career option you realize you're just pursuing because it's popular – can help you more easily and smartly make a final choice.

Commit earlier to choices: While most predict otherwise, people tend to be happier once having committed to their choices. A classic study by Professor Daniel Gilbert illustrates this: photography students given the option to switch which prints they took home were less happy with their chosen prints than those who had no such option, even though most forecasted the opposite. (Gilbert attributes this to our "psychological immune system" – our ability to subjectively optimize outcomes – an oft-overlooked ability that can't kick in if we delay our choice of outcomes.)

The lesson for Boothies? You may not want to wait so long to choose which courses to bid on, which of your (hopefully many) internship offers to accept or which cute Boothie to ask out on a date. You might just find happiness in committing sooner.

As you dive into autumn quarter, full of academic, career and social options, you can keep your options open, or simplify, narrow, and commit. The choice is yours. So choose away!

Last Updated 10/7/13
Last Updated 10/7/13