When It’s Bad to Have Good Choices

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North America is the land of abundance and free but not necessarily the land of the happy. Immagrant Zbigniew Lipowski discovered this back in 1955 when he traveled here from Dublin. “As he pondered the contrast, Lipowski thought of Buridan’s ass: an apocryphal donkey that finds itself standing between two equally appealing stacks of hay. Unable to decide which to consume, it starves to death.”

>Lipowski called it an approach-approach conflict: faced with enticing options, you find yourself unable to commit to any of them quickly. And even when you do choose, you remain anxious about the opportunities that you may have lost: maybe that other stack of hay tasted sweeter.

Lipowski summarized his theory in a paper published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, in 1970.
>“I maintain that it is specifically the overabundance of attractive alternatives, aided and abetted by an affluent and increasingly complex society,” he wrote, “that leads to conflict, frustration, unrelieved appetitive tension, more approach tendencies and more conflict—a veritable vicious cycle.” That cycle, in turn, likely had “far-reaching and probably harmful effects on the mental and physical health of affected individuals.” Lipowski concluded that the overabundance of good scenarios was the main source of the anxiety around him. It was here, in the land of plenty, he wrote, “that the fate of Buridan’s ass haunts us.”

Don’t get us wrong, it appears that we do not have a problem with “low value” options, like deciding between something like an iPod and a bag of pretzels. this choice is clear and life is good.

But the story changes when multiple high priced options are available, take for instance choosing between a digital camera and a camcorder. It appears most people’s anxiety skyrockets. The choices between those objects that they valued most highly were both the most positive and the most anxiety-filled.

Lipowski study was repeated with up to six items per choice.
>“When you have more good choices, you don’t feel better,” Shenhav says. “You just feel more anxious.”

I say, perhaps there is a greedy jean in all of us.


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“When It’s Bad to Have Good Choices”