The Paradox of Choice

Posted — Apr 25, 2019

I have reached decision fatigue.

It starts in the morning. I stare at my closet and wonder what to wear. I’m not a good dresser. As long as clothes don’t clash, I’m good. My personal style? My zipper isn’t down. That is the extent of it. Steve Jobs was famous for wearing the same clothes every day. That brief mental reprieve doesn’t feel like much, but we make thousands of decisions daily, consciously and unconsciously. Every decision you don’t have to make, no matter how minute, is like a mental nap.

Part of this is the democratization of technology and the seemingly infinite choices it creates. There is a glut of products and services. And many brands for each. Unless a business is majorly capital intensive, there is no friction in starting a company. For most of human civilization, creating products was extremely challenging. The raw materials were hard to source. Craftsmen had to build the end product by hand. The problem was never demand, but supply. The Industrial Age, with sophisticated global supply chains supported by shipping lanes protected by navies, improved logistics, and technology, fixed all that. Want to create a new USB-C phone charger? Design it, send it over to China, and they will ship back as many containers as you want. Software? Look at the number of projects that show up on Product Hunt every single day.

A decision is a commitment. When presented with many alternatives, committing is a challenge. Anecdotally I see this with myself and friends. We spend an excessive amount of time scrolling through Netflix versus watching. The behavior is understandable. When you log into any Netflix-like platform, the user is presented with an infinite scroll of choices. “Do I really want to watch this? It’s only recommended to me at 92%. What if there is something better?” Even with algorithm recommendations, do you want to watch a show that might be canceled soon or watch another movie that has a similar plot to what you liked before? Mind-numbingly scrolling is relaxing, almost like another mental nap.

Yesterday, I was getting ready to go listen to a talk. I pulled up the confirmation email to find the address, suite number, and parking info. In the arrival instructions it stated that the doors to the suite would be locked, so text them on Telegram, and someone will come and open the door. Now, I have nothing against Telegram, but it’s not on my phone. I stared at the email. How badly did I want to go? I have to install an app just to go to this event. I already have iMessages, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Signal.

This fatigue also comes from our choices in terms of what and how we want to engage. Last night we went to an Aziz Ansari show. This is how one of his bits went:

AA: You guys see the picture on social media where that woman got a pizza delivered, and the pepperoni was arranged in the shape of a swastika? How many of you thought it looked like a swastika?

(Quarter of the crowd hoots and hollers)

AA: How many of you thought it looked like a regular pizza?

(A different quarter hoots and hollers)

(Then Aziz stares out at the crowd)

AA: What the hell are you guys talking about?!? I just made that up!

His point was that we are required to have hot-takes about everything. Make a decision no matter what, no matter how informed or uninformed we are, we must have an opinion.

Aziz continued:

AA: The half of you who didn’t clap aren’t off the hook. Because you all were thinking how the hell didn’t I know about this?!?

He continues talking about how we used to get news. You read the paper in the morning. Went on with your day. Maybe learned and discussed issues a bit more at the water-cooler. You watched the evening news.

A person could process information over time.

That is no longer possible. We are reading or viewing news while still in bed every morning. We are refreshing our feeds throughout the day. The hot-takes are immediate and constant online and 24-hour news channels.

The Internet and media landscape changed how or what we are supposed to know. Before, trying to learn about many different things was difficult since we didn’t have access to all the knowledge. Socially and in the business world, that is no longer an option. Just because a lot of information is at our fingertips, we shouldn’t be required to have an opinion about everything. Nowadays, it’s not acceptable to say “I don’t know.”

I’m balding. Well, not balding, but my hair is thinning. This was bound to happen. I see hereditary catching up to me.

Every barber that has cut my hair in the last 5 years has told me to do something about it. Usually, they bring around whatever product their chain is incentivized to sell. Nothing wrong with that, but I’m totally clueless about haircare and thought I should do research.

First, I hopped on Amazon to look at the reviews of the product the last barber recommended to me. Between the different sizes and combinations of shampoo, conditioner, “scalp treatment,” they averaged 3.5 to 4.5 stars. Then I went to to see if the company had a history of BS reviews. Nope, looks good.

Thinking that I’m somewhat intelligent and should do a modicum of research since I’m putting this gunk in my hair, I decided to Google and find out what ingredients I should be looking for, what alternative products have those ingredients, and if the product recommended by the barber had those ingredients.

Big mistake.

Obviously, there are many review sites. You know, everyone has to be in the content business nowadays. Most had long posts about the science, pros and cons, and of course, an Amazon affiliate link. Nothing wrong with the affiliate link, publishers need to get paid somehow. But there was no way, for me as a reader, to evaluate if the science and list of pros and cons were legit. Not to mention the reviews weren’t based on trying all the different products themselves. There is also the variable that such products may or may not work depending on the individual and their body chemistry. So, it’s a crapshoot.

I don’t even buy my own shampoo. My wife does. The parameters are nothing flowery smelling. Beyond that, I don’t care. She gets me Dove’s men shampoo and body wash, repeatedly, because I don’t complain about it. That’s the extent of her rationale for buying it. Calling it “buying” is a stretch. Buying implies a conscious choice. The Dove’s products are on our Amazon’s monthly Subscribe & Save plan. She made the decision once, and since I haven’t complained, they just show up every month, and I keep using it.

The wife had seen TV ads for the brand the barber recommended. She didn’t know much about it, but it gave the brand some credibility.

And I had no interest in figuring it all out.

So, we are left with:

An overwhelming amount of unverified content (lack of trust) + decent Amazon reviews for incentivized recommended product + lack of interest = purchase of the incentivized recommended product.

That is part of building a brand. The mental shortcut so we don’t have to think. Instead, many companies are focused on the direct marketing aspect, which requires active decision-making.

A few years ago, the repair costs on my car were getting too high. I kept avoiding the process of researching new cars. I wanted to avoid the dealerships like the plague. At the same time, my wife wanted a bigger car because our son was going to be born soon. I took her car, and she got a new car.

I was saved.

There is a reason platforms move to algorithms for feeds and recommendations. There is just too much. Of everything.

Between our own lack of self-control and the use of dark patterns (that are easier to test and execute nowadays), how does this problem get better?

What happens VR/AR/holograms get to the point where we can ignore most of our analog live? Is the scene from Wall-E too far off?

What happens when every action in our virtual worlds become micro-transactions (like mobile video games today)?

What happens when our work environment looks like this?

How will we cope?