The Psychology Of Choice


“It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.”
-Tony Robbins

In today’s society we have a terrifying amount of decisions and choices to make on a daily basis; big ones, small ones, even in between ones. This is a huge privilege, but it brings with it anxiety, many of us find it hard to make decisions, have we made the right one? Are we wasting our potential? So, with all the choices we have to make today; can we find a way to make better ones? Is there a sweet spot between having no choice, having some choice, and having too much? Is there a reason I chose to write about choice? Let’s find out...

There are numerous environmental influences that affect us when we make choices. These are: our upbringing and experiences; other people; how our choices are presented, or even the time of day. Some of these influences we will not be conscious of, however we will often be able to point to them when asked our reasoning after the fact.

“Never make a decision when you are upset, sad, jealous or in love.”
Mario Teguh

What Affects Choice?

Choice Paralysis

It is common in society today to believe that the more choices we have, the better. In fact, the opposite is often true, and we can find the number of choices we are presented with overwhelming. For example, the average supermarket has 42,686 different products for us to choose from. Businesses have found that even though more options increase the likelihood that a consumer will find a product they like, the overwhelming numbers may also decrease customer satisfaction as it fills them with self-doubt, regret and blame when the decisions we have made are wrong.

In 2015, the Tesco chief executive, Dave Lewis, decided to get rid of 30,000 of the 90,000 products from Tesco’s shelves. This was partly a response to Aldi and Lidl which were prospering with far fewer products; 2,000 and 3,000 respectively. What they found was that with less options, people actually bought more.

By limiting the number of options to choose from we can increase the efficiency of our decision-making process as it becomes less overwhelming.  This study from New York University found that “restricting the choice of creative inputs actually enhances creativity.”

“As the number of options increases, the costs, in time and effort, of gathering the information needed to make a good choice also increase”

-Barry Schwartz

Choice and Authority

Not all individuals benefit from choice as our upbringing and experiences can alter the way we approach making decisions.  In Sheena Iyengar’s TED talk, “The Art Of Choosing” she described how Mark Lepper and herself did a series of studies where they explored whether having a choice benefitted the individuals taking part in their study. Some children were presented with 6 different piles of anagrams and different coloured pens to write their answers with. Anglo and Asian American children were brought into the laboratory and divided into three groups:

  • Group 1 had lots of choices: Children who got to choose the pile of anagrams they would like to do and the coloured pen they would like to write with.

  • Group 2 had no choice: Children were told by the researcher which anagrams to complete and the coloured pen they should use.

  • Group 3 also had no choice: The children were told the anagrams and their pens were chosen by their mothers.


Figure 2: Bar chart showing how the number of anagrams solved by the children correctly was affected by who made the decision

The Anglo-American children, did two and half times more anagrams when they were able to make decisions for themselves. However, when their decision was made by the researcher or their mothers, their performance significantly suffered.

In contrast, Asian- American children performed best when they were told that their mothers had made the choice and least well when it had been chosen by the researcher. These children were more conformist and believed that success was equally about pleasing their parents as it was about satisfying their own preferences.  

Clearly then, our choices can be affected by the authority figures around us. An experiment conducted by the psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University measured the willingness of participants when they were instructed by authority figures to perform acts that conflicted with their morals. Participants played the role of the “teacher” and administered electric shocks to the “learner” every time the learner answered a question incorrectly. In reality, the learner was not being shocked and was in fact an actor who pretended to be in great deal of pain.  

Despite protests, many participants continued  the experiment when the authority figure persuaded them to increase the voltage after each wrong answer until the shocks were so large that they had they appeared to cause death.  In fact, 65% of the participants inflicted the final, massive 450-volt shock. Similar experiments have shown the same results, showing that people are willing to go against their morals if an authoritative figure (in this case just someone in a lab coat) is present.

“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.”

-Noam Chomsky

Hunger and Tiredness

The time of day we make our decisions in and how well rested we are can also influence the outcome of choices; a concept explored by Shai Danzinger. Over a ten month period, he summarised the results of 1,112 parole hearings in Israeli prisons. The graph below presents his findings; the dotted lines on the graph represent the points in the day where the judges had a morning or lunch break. Interestingly, the number of paroles granted by the judges significantly decreased throughout the day from 65% in the morning to 25% before their morning break and as low as 15% by the end of the day where they had less energy and were more likely to make the easy choice. After their breaks the number of paroles granted by the judges dramatically increased back up to 65%. Shai Danzinger explained these results as “choice overload”:

“We start suffering from “choice overload” and we start opting for the easiest choice. For example, shoppers who have already made several decisions are more likely to go for the default offer, whether they’re buying a suit or a car. And when it comes to parole hearings, the default choice is to deny the prisoner’s request."

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Figure 1: Graph showing how the number of paroles granted is affected by the time of day

Organising rest, particularly after 11am, before we make important decisions makes us less likely to suffer from decision fatigue. In the morning our levels of serotonin are higher than in the afternoon which has a calming effect on the brain and can theoretically make the decision making process easier. Later in the day our levels of serotonin decline, reducing the efficiency and quality of our decisions.  

Similarly, we are likely to make better decisions when we have recently eaten.  A research paper, Essential Role of the Mushroom Body in Context-Dependent CO2 Avoidance in Drosophila explained how hunger can lead to increased willingness of animals to take risks, in this particular case the fruit fly, Drosophila. Some neurobiologists experimented how a fruit fly’s behaviour changed when it was hungry. High carbon dioxide levels normally indicate danger to the fruit fly, however these levels are normally associated with the rotting fruits and vegetables that fruit flies eat. The scientists found that the fruit flies were more likely to overcome their fear of carbon dioxide when they were hungry and needed food. Effects of hunger have also been seen in humans; hungry subjects are more likely to take financial risks than their colleagues. So, what do we learn from the fruit fly? Don’t make decisions when you’re hungry!

Our decisions then, are affected by almost anything, most notably: The amount of decisions we have to make, who presents the decisions (authority figures) and how hungry and tired we are. So when we want to make a good decision; as much as possible we should ensure that we are aware of what the decision really is, not just how it was presented or who gave it to us; make sure we’re well fed and rested; and whenever possible, limit the number of decisions we have to make in the first place!

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