The Options Paradox

I don’t know about you but I find too many options inconvenient.

Having a choice is fine. It’s a great way to express who I am and to explore what I want. I love to choose the clothes I’m going to wear. I love to choose the words I’m going to use. Choices are – to a certain extent – empowering and an affirmation of freedom. I can do what I want. Nice.

Or not?

More and more often the idea of too many options gives me stress and makes me choose the default option. Well, choose. Let’s say I’d rather stick to the default option because it feels safer. The net result is that I’m pretty much happy, while at the same time I feel frustrated because I didn’t explore the possibilities these options offered and I might end up paying more for something I don’t enjoy or use completely.

For years now half of my mobile phones’ widgets remain unused, sometimes because I don’t read the manual, sometimes because I know I don’t need them, but most of all because I don’t like to screw things up and ‘disturb’ the phone. Aka: I don’t want to make a mess of it.

So I get to what I call the Options Paradox: at a certain point: offering more options only makes the default more appealing.

Another story. Last year I made my first trip to New York. One evening I wanted to order a wrap in a Mexican restaurent. So I looked at the menu and picked one. What followed was a very frustrating and confusing conversation. The guy behind the counter questioned me for every single ingredient which was supposed to be in the wrap I wanted to order. What kind of bread? How should the bread be backed? Meat? Sauce? Vegetables? I’m simplifying it a little since I can’t remember all the options anymore.

I was so surprised and overwhelmed by what I was asked that I just started nodding and ended up with a role that didn’t live up to what the menu had promised me.

And the worst thing was, it was my choice. Or that’s what was understood as such. If you have all the options and still fail to pick what you want, that’s too bad for you.

Ok I hear you, I may have been a little more assertive.

But it made me think. If options are there to allow us to a) make sure we get what we want b) let us explore and enjoy freedom and c) are supposed to make us feel better about ourselves, then could it be that

  • giving too many options is just what you have to do to miss the point?
  • if you want people to use the default option, do you have to give them way too many options?
  • if you give a lot of options and want people to explore them completely you’d offer them gradually?
  • the default choice is actually the default choice and the best choice as well for a reason other than what I’ve stipulated before?

These are questions I cannot answer yet but which I’d love to be able to answer any time soon.

If you know examples or are willing to share some thoughts about the Options Paradox, feel free to contact me @ superblyhuman-at-gmail-dot-com, or leave a comment here.

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2 thoughts on “The Options Paradox

  1. Hannes says:

    Thank you James. The talk is on my to watch list. I was inspired by what I read in Nudge (

    I’m very interested in an example of how this option thing worked out for you.

    Kind Regards,


  2. James Fuller says:

    This has been brought up at least once before and has a book written about it, “The Paradox of Choice“(which I’ve yet to read.) The author Barry Schwartz did a TED video here: Barry Schwartz @ TED.

    Recently I’ve been feeling like I need to start instantly killing my options to make picking my options easier. So you are in no way alone in feeling stressed out about it.

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