The Paradox of Choice

Have you ever stood in the bread aisle in a gigantic supermarket and been totally overwhelmed by the huge range of options that you had?

I definitely have, and I strongly remember a situation in a local supermarket during my Postdoc time in the US, where I felt almost paralyzed in front of a probably 25-meter-long shelf, filled with bread of all different kinds of brands and varieties.

Now this is not going to become a post about my favorite bread. It’s about an interesting phenomenon that I regularly observe in my career planning courses and coachings – the “Paradox of Choice”.

Having more choices does not automatically lead to more satisfaction and happiness!

Generally, one might think that having more choices is better: If there is a large range of options, you should be able to get exactly what you are looking for and you will be happy and satisfied with your selection!

However, too many choices may actually lead to just the opposite and you might end up being unhappier, not as satisfied with your choice, or you might even become paralyzed and unable to make a decision. This is called the “Paradox of Choice”.1

So what does bread have to do with your career?

The Paradox of Choice also applies to career choices

You are willing to relocate for your new job, maybe even across borders, you could see yourself working in academic research but hey, R&D for sure is also an option, and maybe you’d also enjoy working in science management or as a consultant or…?

Many of my clients feel lost and don’t even know where to start with their job search, as almost anything seems to be possible. They are overwhelmed by all the job options out there. So what can you do?

Reduce your options and be happy with ‚good enough‘

If you’re facing choice overload, the following tipps may help:

  1. You know that your bread should be organic, whole-grain and it must contain poppy seeds? But what about your next job? Don’t worry about all the options! Spend some time on introspection first: Figure out what you value and what matters to you. Then make a list with your selection criteria. This will help you focus and narrow down your choices.
  2. How much time and energy can you afford to invest into trying to find “the perfect job”? Reconsider your choice-making strategy: Is it worth the effort trying to find the perfect option (“maximizer”), or could you just go with a “good enough” choice (“satisficer”)? In fact, looking for the “best” job might actually undermine your satisfaction!2

What’s your experience with “the paradox of choice”? Do you have any other tricks & tips for dealing with it?

I wish you all the best for 2022 & good luck with navigating your choices!

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Iris Köhler – The Scientist Coach

Recommended reading:

1The term “Paradox of Choice” was popularized by the American psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book “ The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less. (Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco, 2004)

2Iyengar SS, Wells RE, Schwartz B. Doing Better but Feeling Worse: Looking for the “Best” Job Undermines Satisfaction. Psychological Science. 2006;17(2):143-150. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01677.x

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