The Paradox of Choice:

Too many flavors at the ice cream store
Nov 2019
Olivia
Y.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

I am a brand-new Ph.D. student and I have already figured out my least favorite part about MIT: the overwhelming number of choices. As I am enrolled as a student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Medical Engineering Ph.D. program, the situation is even more intense. I can take classes at both Harvard Medical School and MIT. I can choose a research advisor from MIT, Harvard, Harvard Medical School, or any of the Boston hospitals.

 

An overwhelming amount of choices. Wherever you go to graduate school, you will likely face some tough decisions. And even if you do not go to graduate school, you will need to consciously decide how to spend your time and weigh the benefits and costs of various opportunities. The average person makes 35,000 decisions every day1. So, at some point or another, everyone is bound to face the ‘paradox of choice’.

 

Decision making has never been one of my strengths. It can take me twenty minutes to decide which flavor of ice cream to try. It took me almost that long to decide which flavor I wanted the first time that I went to J.P. Licks, arguably the best ice cream shop in Boston. Even then, I could not pick just one flavor – instead, I got one scoop of Brownie Batter and one scoop of Peanut Butter Cookies and Cream. And I know that next time I go to J.P. Licks, I will suffer through the same painstaking decision-making process.

 

MIT offers the same kind of “too many flavors” dilemma when choosing which classes to register for and which organizations to participate in…

 

  • Should I take Pathology, Immunology, Drug Development, Biomaterials, Tumor microenvironment, Genetics or some combination of each of these classes?
  • Should I join a social organization or a volunteer outreach organization or the Health Sciences and Technology joint council?
  • Which PI (Principal Investigator) should I choose as my research mentor?

The more that I try to decide, the more overwhelmed I become. This is a perfect example of what’s called “the paradox of choice.” The paradox is that even though having more choices seems better, it is only better up to a certain extent. Past this critical point, having more choices becomes overwhelming and leads to less overall satisfaction. After all, you can only have so many scoops of ice cream.

 

Barry Schwartz, one of the leading proponents of this theory, posits that instead of being excited by the possibility of so many options, we become bogged down in finding that perfect choice. We also become obsessed with missed opportunities. That means that even if the choice we picked was perfectly adequate, we still worry that there may have been a better option out there. If you want more information on this concept, I would highly recommend Barry Schwartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.”

 

Ultimately, psychology studies have shown that more options can lead to less happiness2. Excessive choice can even lead to ‘choice paralysis’ where individuals are unable to come to a decision. In fact, that’s where I found myself week one at MIT...

 

Even as I registered for three intriguing classes (Pathology, Drug Development and Biomaterials) this semester, I still wonder if there are other classes which I would enjoy better.

 

In ice cream parlance: while I picked Brownie Batter and Peanut Butter Cookies and Cream, I still wondered if I should have gone with the Salted Caramel flavor.

 

Obviously, I have not yet managed to overcome the paradox of choice. I still worry that I have made a less than optimal decision, whether I am picking classes or ice cream flavors. Nevertheless, I want to offer some advice, courtesy of my undergraduate advisor, to any new students who feel plagued by the paradox of choice. Four years ago, as a college freshman, I remember my faculty advisor lecturing about the paradox of choice in my peer advising class. His advice: to consciously limit our choices and to strive to be a ‘satisficer’ not a maximizer. ‘Satisficers’ seek an option that is ‘good enough’ while maximizers are constantly on the hunt for the best option. Schwartz found that ‘satisficers’ are consistently happier than maximizers and less likely to be clinically depressed3. Many MIT students and grad students everywhere, myself included, are ingrained to be maximizers. We feel incredibly lucky to be at a world-renowned institution like MIT. We want to make the most of every opportunity. We are excited to make our impact on the world and passionate about research and discovery. And because of all these feelings, we want to make the best possible decision at every moment and constantly worry about making the wrong decision.   

 

I am consciously trying to undo these maximizer habits. I am trying not to consider every single option. I am trying to choose the path that feels right, instead of researching every minutiae of every option. I am trying to make decisions in minutes, not hours. I am trying not to second guess every decision. I am trying to be thoughtful in every decision and also to realize that decisions are not forever. As countless upper level graduate students have reminded me, I can always adjust if my graduate school career is not working out the way I planned.  For any other new students, I challenge you to try this strategy with me: seeking to satisfy instead of to maximize.

 

References (also hyperlinked)

1http://science.unctv.org/content/reportersblog/choices

2https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/your-money/27shortcuts.html

3https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/the-power-of-good-enough/387388/