Buridan’s ass: Why more is less (and what to do about it)

The irony is that the freedom of choice and abundance available to us has inadvertently robbed us of the same freedom it promised to deliver.

Imagine a happy, bubbly donkey strolling down an open, rich field.

After a few minutes of walking, the donkey finds itself standing in-between two identical, delicious bundles of hay—one on the left, the other on the right.

Unfortunately, the poor donkey can’t figure out a good reason to choose one bundle of hay over the other. Or, which one to choose first, if it decides to eat both.

The miserable donkey swivels its head left and right, deliberating between the two hay choices, and increasingly growing in hunger.

After a long while, the poor donkey—paralyzed by the choices available—eventually dies from starvation.

This short thought experiment, formally known as Buridan’s ass, originated from the early 14th-century, nominalist French Philosopher, Jean Buridan.

Over 600 years after Jean Buridan’s thought experiment, psychologists began to conduct extensive experiments to explain the paradox of Buridan’s ass and shed some light on how choice affects our well-being.

Here’s what they discovered.

The more, the better

In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a groundbreaking study that would throw the business and academic world into a frenzy. And it was all because of jam. [1]

On two consecutive Saturdays, a tasting booth was set up in a gourmet grocery store in an upscale California neighborhood.

Two research assistants, dressed as employees, stood behind the tasting booth and beckoned customers to “come try our Wilkin and Sons jams.”

A passerby was presented with one of two display tables.

On one display, 24 varieties of exotic, high-quality gourmet jam, were spread across the table. And on the other, only six varieties were presented.

Each display provided a taste sample of each variety, and a coupon for a dollar if a passerby bought a jar of jam.

For several hours, the researchers intimately observed how hundreds of people interacted with each display table.

Unsurprisingly, more people were attracted to the display of 24 varieties of jam, than the display of six varieties.

After all, more choice is always better.

Or is it?

The paradox of choice

When the researchers sat down to count the total number of customer purchases per display, they expected to see higher figures associated with the table of 24 varieties of jam. But, they completely missed the mark.

Surprisingly, only 3% of people who walked up to the table of 24 varieties of jam made a purchase. Conversely, 30% of people exposed to the display of six varieties of jam spent their hard-earned money on a jar of jam.

Even though more people were attracted to the table with more choices available, they were one-tenth as likely to buy a jar of jam than people who saw the smaller display.

The researchers concluded—after repeating a similar experiment with choices of chocolates and essay assignments—that more choice leads to reduced human motivation.

A series of follow up studies have also shown that increasing the number of choices available creates feelings of anxiety, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. [2]

But this flies in the face of societies beliefs that more choice is better for our well-being. In actual fact, more choice could leave us worse off.

In the book, The Paradox of Choice (Audiobook), psychologist, Barry Schwartz attempts to explain this paradox:

“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

Never have we had so much of choice with respect to love and relationships, work, travel, entertainment, ideas, goals and so on, but can we confidently say that we’re more satisfied?

And, why is more choice detrimental for our well-being?

The problem with too much choice

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

There are several plausible explanations for why more choice leaves us worse off.

First, consider the phenomenon of Hick’s law—named after psychologist William Hick—which states that increasing the number of choices available to a person will increase the time it takes them to make a decision.

Take a few seconds to remember the last time you wasted a lot of time deciding between a number of choices i.e. choices of holiday, house, clothing, food, relationship, ideas etc.

Most likely, you can recall how this indecisiveness led to overwhelm, anxiety, high expectations and regret after a final choice was made.

Second, according to Nobel prize winner in Economics, Herber A. Simon, there are two types of consumers. They are the maximizers and the satisficers. [3]

Maximizers are perfectionists. They need reassurance that every purchase or decision is the best one possible.

In order to achieve this, the maximizer embarks on an exhausting search for all possibilities and engages in social comparisons to make a decision.

At the end of the research phase, the maximizer feels exhausted, regrets the choice and is dissatisfied with the final decision.

On the flip side, satisficers are not worried about the possibility that there may be a better choice out there. They simply make a decision based on their criteria and standards, and are satisfied with their final choice.

The problem is that nowadays, most of us are maximizers. We want the ‘best’ at all costs, and refuse to settle for ‘good enough.’

As a result of this, we suffer from f.o.m.o (fear of missing out) when making a choice between one of several desirable choices. And after a choice is made, we still feel dissatisfied and miserable.

The interaction of both of these explanations and Buridan’s ass is best illustrated by the Inverted-U Curve.

In a nutshell, for each new choice added to our array of options, there are diminishing marginal positive benefits.

After exceeding a certain number of choices, the marginal benefits of each new choice becomes nominal and eventually turns negative.

The ideal number of choices is at the point where we enjoy the maximum benefit.

Through trial and error we can learn to adjust the number of our choices for optimal well-being and satisfaction.

Give up on freedom of choice

The irony is that the freedom of choice and abundance available to us has inadvertently robbed us of the same freedom it promised to deliver.

What we’ve gained in freedom of choice, we’ve also lost in becoming slaves to anxiety, overwhelm, regret, dissatisfaction and misery.

The only way to regain true freedom and satisfaction in our lives, is to embrace hardship and give up on freedom of choice.

P.S. For more ideas on how to make better choices, master focus and productivity in your life, check out the art of stress-free focus seminar.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter.”

A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “Buridan’s Ass: Why More Is Less (and What to Do About It).


Footnotes

  1. S. Iyengar and M. Lepper, “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, 79, 995–1006.
  2. Neural correlates of dueling affective reactions to win-win choices. Shenhav et al (2014).Grant, Adam & Schwartz, Barry. (2011). Too Much of a Good Thing The Challenge and Opportunity of the Inverted U. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6. 61-76.
  3. Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 59, 99–118
  4. The concept behind Buridan’s ass had previously been explored by Aristotle, who wrote that “a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.”