The agony of choice

I recently came across this insightful and humourous TED talk by Dan Gilbert about the surprising science of happiness. The talk provides a fascinating insight into the human ability to ‘synthesise’ happiness – in other words, our ability to convince ourselves that we are happy. But it also highlights the complex emotional responses brought about by having to make choices. If you have 15 mins to spare have a watch of the video, he’s a great presenter and the science is fascinating. Here are some key points from the talk:

If we don’t have options, we convince ourselves that what we have is great. We synthesise happiness.

As soon as you introduce choice, you introduce the fear of choosing the wrong thing. And consequently the potential for unhappiness.

Examples: Moreese Bickham, who spent 37 years in an American jail for a crime he didn’t commit, was exonerated at the age of 78. He stated, “I don’t have one minute’s regret, it was a glorious experience”. And Pete Best, former drummer of the Beatles, who stated, “I’m happier now that I would have been in the Beatles”.

Some implications for experience design:

  • If we have limited options, it leads us to work joyfully and have a better experience. But if we have many options, we fear the impact of making the wrong decision.
  • If we believe a decision we have made is irreversible, we convince ourselves that we made the right decision.
  • Understand and fulfill customer/user needs as fully as possible while minimising their options. This should lead to them being happier and having a better experience.

There are also important links between Gilbert’s findings and research into the effect of having to make choices on our willpower. This post from Creative Huddle explains how having to make too many choices can lead to ‘ego-depletion’. Here are some key extracts:

Choice requires effort. Willpower is a finite resource.

The simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.

Example: Barack Obama “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m wearing or eating because I have too many other decisions to make”.

Implications for experience design:

  • Choice causes fatigue.
  • Don’t force people to make choices unless absolutely necessary.

Further reading: David McRaney on ego-depletion.

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