Is there such thing as too much freedom?

Freedom. It’s a great thing, right?

Of course it is. Many of us are incredibly lucky to live in such a free world. Choices upon choices upon choices. Freedom to choose what we want, when we want.

Is there ever such a thing as too much freedom? That sounds ridiculous, right? How on earth can you have too much of freedom?!

This is exactly what I thought, and you can imagine my surprise when I first discovered that that’s not the case. You can, in fact, have too much freedom. Step up Barry Schwartz (more on him below).

Let me offer an example here. Back in the 60s/70s, if you wanted to buy a pair of jeans, you’d go off to the shops. At that time, there’d be perhaps only a limited range of similar options, and probably just in one or two shops max.

In 2015, if I need to buy a pair of jeans (true story – this was the case for me just this Summer), theexperience is a whole lot different. Jeans in slimfit, baggy fit, skinny fit, slim-but-baggy fit, and so on. Jeans in light blue, dark blue, medium blue, black, blue-black…red. We are spoilt for choice. Again, this sounds good – all that choice, all that freedom!

But this is what happens:

– I visit 3-5 high street stores that I have bought items of clothing from before.
– I proceed to identify just one or two pairs to try on; my perfectionism makes this difficult enough, and the sheer number of options adds to this drama. (Ridiculously, in one shop where there are about 15 choices of jeans, I don’t find a single one that I like! Somehow, something tells me that in the 1960s, if I was in the only store that sold jeans, I’d have magically found at least one pair that I liked…)
– In one of the shops, I eventually find a pair or two that I can bear. I try them on and settle for a particular pair, or perhaps both if I really can’t decide. Grr. This is getting painful even just typing about it.
– I go home, happy. My work here is done. But wait a second…did I really make the right choice? That first shop I went to with the skinny fit jeans which were a little too skinny…that shade of navy was beautiful. They were just a little too skinny…weren’t they? Of course they were, I tell myself. The 2 pairs I’ve bought are far nicer. But hold on a second, have I made the right choice? Damnit.

This phenomenon is known as the paradox of choice. There really is such a thing as having too much choice. We give ourselves a mental headache making the choice in the first place, and then we ruminate and regret the choice that we made having picked an option – due to the fact that there are so many options. Too many options.

Barry Schwartz has carried out a lot of work on this topic, and to explore further I really recommend his TED Talk “The Paradox of Choice’ – at the bottom of the page.

There’s lots of choice out there, too much choice. Up until a certain point, freedom of choice is awesome – without a doubt, it beats no choice at all. But – as is often the case – there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

In fact, this is allegedly one of the reasons Steve Jobs wore his same jeans and black turtleneck sweater every day (I’m assuming he washed them regularly, or he owned multiple forms of the same items). Too much choice leads to decision fatigue – Mr. Jobs decided he want to expend his mental energy on the decisions and activities that truly mattered, rather than on how he would dress each day! Google it if you don’t believe me…

(I must admit, I can relate to this. This is one of the reasons I gave away a hefty portion of my clothes recently.)

Next time I go shopping, I’m going to try to make a quick and painless decision. This is very much a work in progress!

Have you ever experienced the paradox of choice? I’d love to hear your personal stories and experiences. Drop me a note at – I view and respond to each one.

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