The Paradox of Choice

In Melbourne we have this magical wonderland called Brunetti’s. Established over 30 years ago, Brunetti’s offers *ahem* ‘Italian’ style sweets, pastries & gelato. These are basically my three favourite things in the world, and their range is huge.


Seriously, this is about half of their range.

So why is it that despite the number of times I’ve walked into Brunetti’s, I’ve only ever purchased one (amazing) rum baba? It’s certainly not due to the lack of delicious treats available or to the scrooge factor, as they’re all roughly the same price.

To add to the story, my first rum baba was purchased when I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee & cake, and so was obliged to make a choice. The next (and only other time) I ordered something from Brunetti’s? After pacing the cabinet a number of times, I walked away with the rum baba again. Yes, it had been delicious, but I also could be fairly certain that I could throw a dart and it would land in something  that I would enjoy. So why the repeat?


There are just too many delicious options to choose from. I could be happy with any of them, but choosing one dessert means forfeiting a dozen others that I may like even more. How can I tell that I’ve made the best choice? It’s all a bit too much, maybe I don’t really need a sweet anyway…

Then I will literally walk away. Choice overload short circuits my brain, making me think that it’s better to have no dessert than to make anything less than the best possible choice. And I think we can all agree, no dessert is never the best choice.

According to Shah, A. M., & Wolford (and Wikipedia) in situations like this, ‘Making a decision becomes overwhelming due to the many potential outcomes and risks that may result from making the wrong choice. Having too many approximately equally good options is mentally draining because each option must be weighed against alternatives to select the best one.’

-ie. how can I possibly weigh all of these equally delicious options against each other? They’re like children,  I can’t possibly choose.

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Spending literally minutes obsessing over a dessert might seem minor in the course of a day, but spending hours or days obsessing over larger decisions can chip away at your brainpower and result in poorer decisions in the long run. In a consumer-driver society, those larger decisions are everywhere. What internet provider offers the best deal? What credit card should you apply for? What car insurance is best for you?

Frequently having to make calls like these can involve hours of research and dozens of computer tabs (at least if you’re me). Sometimes it will be an ongoing project, idly stretching across a number of days. I start using the hunt as procrastination, dropping an hour here & there to ‘just check out some other options’. They’re all so similar and companies devote big money to making sure that they appear the best on the market, so how do I know I’m making the best choice?

I don’t. I’ll never know that.

All I can do is decide what my needs are (cheap internet, no annual card fee…and I don’t own a car), and find a product to meet those needs. It might not be the best product available, but if it does the job I’m paying for it to do at a price point that I’m comfortable with, is it worth spending any more time on the problem than that? As Tim Ferris so aptly puts it “It’s deliberation—the time we vacillate over and consider each decision—that’s the attention consumer.” 

And in this day and age, how much attention do you really have to waste?

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The Paradox of Choice

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