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The Burden of Choice

Can less choice be better than more?



Introduction and History

What is a Maximiser and a Satisficer?


- Clinical






Traditional thinking about freedom has always assumed that the more free we are to make choices, the happier we will be - so as we have more freedoms now than ever before we must be happier than ever before! However we are not, there is a problem with traditional thinking; the more choices we have, for example products in a supermarket, the less likely we are to feel contented with the decision and the more likely we are to feel regret about the choice. Research on these findings, led by Schwartz et al (2002) has various clinical and consumer applications.

Introduction and History

Humans have evolved to fear bad decision making because of its potentially life threatening consequences. Choosing the wrong place to settle, selecting the wrong types of foods to eat and choosing the wrong partner can all affect the likelihood of survival and producing healthy offspring. Over the past few centuries, wars have been fought and treaties have been signed on the basis that people want the right to make their own choices in all aspects of their lives.

Traditionally men made all the family decisions as they were considered the more rational gender, whereas it was a common belief that women were driven by their emotions thus found decision making more of a challenge. This belief was based upon the idea that rational decisions could only be made when separated from emotion. However there is evidence that emotions play a major part in logical decision making (Naqvi et al, 2007). In British society today we are encouraged to express and identify our emotions. Could it be that we attach emotions to decision making to the extent that having a large number of options leaves us in disarry? Furthermore making the wrong decision can induce negative emotions such as regret, anxiety, embarrassment and even make us depressed.

Looking to other cultures it is apparent that some people strive massively for the kind of freedoms which we enjoy (such as China or North Korea). However these freedoms do not seem to relate to well being as we are not massively more contented than other cultures (Schwartz et al., 2002). Perhaps this is due to other cultures having different priorities, stronger family structures or perhaps it is linked to individuals having limited (but still real) decisions to make?

Early research into difficulties surrounding decision making looked at the use of logic and heuristics. When there is too much information to make a purely logical decision, rules of thumb such as the availability or representativeness heuristic are used (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979). Now we have moved from looking at how we make decisions to how decision making makes us feel. In the past many economists attempted to create models which can make predictions about consumption, looking at what situations make us more likely to decide to spend money and in what situations we are less likely to spend. These must take into account how consumers feel about decisions (how stressful, boring or important they are).

Take the vast number of internet help sites such as,, flight finder for example, not to mention the endless varieties of self help books. These all indicate that choosing is a stressful business and that people strive to limit what they have to choose between.

However are all decisions distressing? For example, is choosing partner stressful? Are there circumstances where the degree of difficulty in making choices fluctuates? For example does choosing a partner or indeed making any choice become easier when you have consumed alcohol?

While it is clear that some choice is better than no choice, it appears that less choice can be better than more. Throughout this wiki page we hope to address these issues by looking at what makes too many choices stressful as well as considering the role of emotions and opportunity gains and losses in decision making. We assess whether the theoretical is supported by the empirical as well as by everyday activities such as consumer shopping and discuss whether it can be generalized to all aspects of life. We will also consider practical and clinical applications, criticisms of the theory and hope to give you some handy hits for happy decision making!

Click on the links below to watch short and entertaining talks by Schwartz's himself on choice.

You can take the test to find out if you area maximizer or a satisficier reading his paper called the tyranny of choice by visiting

What is a Maximizer and a Satisficer?

Schwartz et al (2002) first reported the “Maximization Scale” which apparently tests to which extent an individual is a maximizer or a statisficer. The scale is a 13 point maximisation scale and a 5 point regret scale.

Maximizers are individuals who wish to get the best result out of everything they do. A maximizer, by seeking out the best result in every possible option, is seen to experience more regret as the options increase and there is a larger scope for the incorrect or simply not the best option being chosen (Schwartz et al 2002).

Statisficers by nature are the opposite of maximizers, they are happy to settle for an option so longs it meets their basic requirements. Once a threshold value has been obtained they choose that rather than waiting for “The best” to come along (Schwartz et al 2002). For example, a maximizer would compare all the available men whilst choosing a boyfriend before picking one and a statisficer would simply pick the first one that fitter their criteria e.g. must have brown hair and blue eyes.


Clinical Applications

The tendency to maximise seems to be indirectly related to depression and anxiety. According to Schwartz et al (2002), maximisers are more likely to experience anticipatory regret than satisficers when making a choice. This regret is experienced during the actual decision making process, and can be experienced as fear, dread and anxiety. (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, and Welch, 2001). Anticipatory regret is most likely to occur when there are so many choices that it is impossible to gain adequate information on all of them to be sure of making the best choice (Schwartz et al, 2002). The maximiser feels the potential regret that they could have made a better choice, even if the choice which they planned to make was a good one.


The possibility of anticipatory regret means that maximisers are far more likely to be indecisive than satisficers. Spunt, Rassin and Epstein (2009) have provided evidence for this. An Indecisiveness Scale was introduced by Frost and Shows (1993), which was a 15-item Likert-type scale. It included items such as "I try to put off making decisions", "I become anxious when making decisions", and "I usually make decisions quickly". Spunt et al (2009) statistically analysed this scale and found that maximisation and subjects' proneness to experiencing regret were associated with aversive indecision. Aversive indecision is defined by Spunt et al, 2009 as a general aversion to making decisions, which causes negative affect when making a choice.

Indecisiveness is one of the symptoms of clinical depression, according to the DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) as cited by Rassin, Muris, Franken, Smit, and Wong (2007). Rassin et al (2007) supported this by investigating the association between indecisiveness and symptoms of various clinical disorders. They did this by giving participants the Indecisiveness Scale in addition to various other questionnaires, some of which measured depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Rassin et al (2007) found that indecisiveness was correlated with depressive and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, worrying, and general anxiety.

These findings on anticipatory regret and indecisiveness show an indirect link between the tendency to maximise, and the risk of developing a disorder such as clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. However while this may be the case, it is likely that only the people with the most extreme tendency to maximise and experience anticipatory regret are at any significant risk of developing any of these disorders.

Consumer Applications


Leading research in this area conducted by Schwartz and colleagues can be applied to our understanding of consumer behaviour. It seems that that being a maximizer or satisficer can affect how people make purchases and how they feel about them. One notable study found that participants who were classed as ‘maximizers’ (as measured by the Maximization scale developed by Schwartz) were more likely than satisficers to engage in higher levels of product comparison, social comparison and counterfactual thinking regarding their purchases. Participants who scored highly on maximizing also experienced more regret and less happiness regarding their purchases.

Schwartz and colleagues suggest that high levels of social and product comparison stimulate counterfactual thoughts in maximizers, which then leads to regret regarding their purchases. It seems that by striving to find the best product available, maximizers experience these negative feelings as a consequence of their buying strategy. They are more likely to put a lot of effort into obtaining information about every product available to ensure the best choice, while satisficers are drawn towards products that meet their basic requirements.

These findings regarding consumer behaviour may come as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried – and failed – to find the best possible product on the market. At a time when technology is developing extremely quickly, it is often the case that as soon as a new product is released onto the market, something faster, better and more useful is in the pipeline. The examples are endless – computers, mobile phones, cameras, music equipment, household appliances, cars… in previous decades it may have been possible to possess the ‘best’ product in a particular area for a considerable length of time, but this is much less common now. Even though we have more choice than ever before when buying products, this is not necessarily a good thing. Assessments of well-being by social scientists show that increased choice and affluence have been accompanied by decreased well-being in the U.S and many other affluent countries (Schwartz, 2004). Even though the gross domestic product has more than doubled in the past 30 years, the proportion of people describing themselves as ‘very happy’ has decreased by about 5 percent (roughly 14 million people). For a more detailed account of how these findings affect well-being, see clinical applications.

Other research in this area conducted separately from Schwartz and colleagues has focused on how maximizers and satisficers cope differently with product choice when a decision has to be made quickly. Chowdhury et al (2008) have stressed the importance of studying consumer decisions in time-constrained situations. Instead of using survey methods and relying on retrospective reports, they designed a controlled experiment. Participants were asked to make rapid online gift purchase decisions from either a small or large assortment of products. They found that maximizers are more likely to browse among the choice options, especially when given a larger assortment to choose from. Maximizers also perceived more time pressure than satisficers and were more likely to change their initial decision if allowed the opportunity to do so. These findings support the conclusions of Schwartz and colleagues that maximizers are more prone to decision regret and counterfactual thinking. Chowdhury and colleagues also suggest that their findings could contribute to future research on the effects of assortment size.

One question of interest is how retailers could make use of this type of research. Should they target maximizers, keeping in mind that they are more likely to seek out the ‘best’ product and may spend more money? Or should they focus more of their energy on appealing to satisficers, who are less likely to go for the best possible product but may buy products more frequently? So far there have been few studies which seek to address these questions. However, Chowdhury et al propose that maximizers are more likely to return and exchange products, especially when they have been forced to make a decision quickly and feel that they have not made the best choice. Based on this suggestion, it could be a risky strategy for a sales assistant to close a sale as quickly as possible when dealing with a maximizer, as they are more likely to return products to the store soon after buying them. Maximizing customers are also more likely than satisficers to feel pressured during the sale process if they sense that the sales assistant is pressuring them into making a decision quickly. It is suggested that salespersons should be sensitive to both verbal and non-verbal cues from customers that may reveal whether they are a maximizer or satisficer, then adapt their sales approach accordingly (Chowdhury et al, 2008).

As this is a new area of psychology, little of the evidence has gone through years of the scientific process, therefore it is very open to criticism. For example the Maximization Scale is created and then used by Schwartz et al (2002) without any validation. A subsequent study by Diab et al (2008) have shown that a different (more accurate) method of measuring maximization does not correlate with dissatisfaction or maladaptive personality. This demonstrates a large problem with the initial study of the burden of choice, a vital component of the theory is contentious and self serving. An example can be made by looking at one of the original (13) items from Schwartz's scale which asks whether or not you turn off a song you are content with on the radio to see if there is one you really like. Answers to this question are open to many outside factors such as taste in music and when or if you listen to the radio often. Therefore it is not a reliable indicator of maximisation of choice outcome utility.

The importance of any disputation of the maximiser/satisficer scale is enormous as without it the entire theory vanishes into speculations based on disparate personality traits. For example, indecisiveness has been associated with maximisers and is associated with stress and anxiety and depression. However, this does not mean that maximisers are likely to be depressed, just that depressed people are likely to have similar traits to maximisers such as indecisiveness. Furthermore, indecisiveness in itself is stressful, especially when there are time constraints placed upon the decision, which there are in most real life decisions. For example when you are at the supermarket, you undoubtedly have other things to do so have to rush your decisions (think for a minute how much less stressful supermarkets are when you have nothing else to do). So it is possible (especially considering how limited the scale is) that the maximiser scale could just be oversimplifying a range of personality traits such as indecisiveness, perfectionism, unflappability ect. which are also affected by circumstances such as time constraints.

In order to back up these claims towards the clinical and consumer applications of the theory, there must be more evidence that people are maximisers and satisficers consistently over time and that they these consistent traits actually have predictive behavioural validity. As it is there are hundreds of things that could make someone indecisive or perfectionist or flustered ect, and this has been shown in psychological experiments. For example It has been shown that something as simple as holding a hot or cold cup can influence decisions about personality (Williams and Bargh, 2008). So it is very contentious to assume that the way people make decisions stays consistent over even a small amount of time.

Even if the method for grouping people as maximisers or satisficers is valid, not all individuals fit into the Maximizer or Satisficier groupings. Those who score in the middle range of these aspects may not find the bulk of the information useful. For example, what about people who are able to be satisficers for simple decisions which will have little effect on their lives such as which supermarket product to buy, but who are maximisers for big decisions (such as which university to go to)? Surely this is logical as it is beneficial to maximise outcome utility for very important decisions? Even if the decision takes a long time and is very stressful, it would still be better (ie result in increased well being) in the long run to be a maximiser in this case.

Furthermore, people may be maximisers or satisficers depending on the situation. For example many people will be very choosy when deciding whether to go on a date with someone and so are usually maximisers when it comes to choosing a partner. However at the end of a long night out they may become more like satisficers in their decisions and take whatever offer comes along. In this case alcohol is making them change, but clearly other factors such as economic or physical strain or even past experience could change a maximiser into a satisficer or vice versa. The above example of relationships is also a case where being a satisficer results in more regret than being a maximiser, the opposite of Schwartz's argument. This example may be slightly unfair to the burden of choice argument (as when you get drunk the amount of possible romantic partners above the acceptability threshold increases, and simultanously an average candidate might start to seem like the perfect one!) but it does demonstrate how easily outside factors can alter decision making style.

There is also evidence that people prefer choice to no choice. For example Bown et al., (2002) demonstrated that people show a preference for choices which were initially paired with another choice over a choice on its own, even if all the choices were equal. They claim this shows that people abide by a 'more choice is better' heuristic to avoid becoming restricted or to make potential mistakes less costly (if there are always alternative options). However choice can also become overbearing. So how can people feel burdened by too much choice and also feel restricted by too little choice? The answer fits nicely with Schwartz's approach. Satisficers are happier because they have a threshold of acceptability so they have choice but are not overburdened by it. However, maximisers are overburdened by their attempts to pick exactly the right option, and the more choices there are the more difficult and stressful it becomes to pick the right option.

Finally there is a problem with quantifying happiness or how contented someone feels etc. Its very difficult to pin down what emotions you are feeling right now let alone why you might be feeling them. It has been shown that mood can be strongly influenced by dieting, menstrual cycle, video games, social interaction etc (Fleming et al, 2001), (Wells et al, 2007), (Kirschbaum et al, 1999) and (Young et al, 2002). Therefore basing a psychological theory on how people feel is extremely shaky science without firm neurological and behavioural data and tight controls.

Handy Hints for Happy Decision Making from Schwartz!

Choose when to choose...

We can decide to restrict pur options when the decision is not crucial. For example, make a rule to visit no more than two stores when shopping for clothing.

Learn to accept "good enough"...

Consciously limit how much you ponder the seemingly attractive features of options you reject. Teach yourself to focus on the positive parts of the selection you make.

Don't worry about what you're missing...

Settle for a choice that meets your core requirements rather than searching for the elusive "best". Then stop thinking about it.

Control expectations...

"Don't expect too much, and you won't be disappointed": its a cliché. But that advice is sensible if you want to be more satisfied with life.


Schwartz et al (2002) posed a very interesting development into the area of positive psychology which is linked to the already established area of “flow”. The broad idea is that we have different methods of making choices, and this can affect our well being and beliefs about the decision both before and after the decision has been made. There do seem to be some clinical and consumer applications to this area of research; however the scientific basis for this area is still quite new. Extensive validations are required in order to establish if such terms as 'maximizer' and 'satisficer' are indeed reflective of the decision making processes of individuals. The area does have some basis and promise but as usual more research needs to be conducted.


American Psychiatric Association (APA) (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed). Text Revision (DSMIV-TR). Washington: APA.

Bown, Read and Summers, (2002) The lure of choice . Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, 16: 297–30 8. Are maximizers really unhappy? The measurement of maximizing tendency , Judgment and Decision Making Vol. 3, No. 5, pp. 364–370

Chowdhury, T. G, Ratneshwar, S & Mohanty, P (2008) The time-harried shopper: Exploring the differences between maximizers and satisficers. Market Lett , 20, 155–167. Explores the influence of the maximizing trait in situations where consumers have to make quick purchase decisions

D ar-Ni mrod I, Rawn C D, Lehman D R, Schwartz B (2009) Maximazation Paradox: The Costs of Seeking Alternatives. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 631-635

Diab, D., Gillespie, MA., Highhouse, S. (2008) Are maximisers really unhappy? The measurement of maximising tendancy. Judgement and Decision Making, Vol 3 (5), pp 364-370.

Fleming and Rick Wood (2006), Effects of Violent Versus Nonviolent Video Games on Children's Arousal, Aggressive Mood, and Positive Mood. Journal of Applied Social Psychology Volume 31 Issue 10 , Pages 2047 - 2071

Frost, R. O., & Shows, D. L. (1993). The nature and measurement of compulsive indecisiveness. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31(7), 683–692.

Kirschbaum, PhD, Kudielka, MS, Gaab, MS, Schommer, MS and Hellhammer, PhD (1999) Impact of Gender, Menstrual Cycle Phase, and Oral Contraceptives on the Activity of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Psychosomatic Medicine 61:154-162

Lehman DR
(2002) Maximizing versus Statisficing: Happiness Is a Matter of Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, (5) 1178-1197

Loewenstein, G.F., Weber, E.U., Hsee, C.K., Welch, N. (2001). Risk As Feelings. Psychological Bulletin 127. 267-286

Rassin, E., Muris, P., Franken, I., Smit, M., Wong, M. (2007). Measuring General Indecisiveness. J Psychopathol Behav Assess 29. 61-68

Schwartz B, (2004) The Tyranny of Choice, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71-75

Schwartz B, Ward A, Monterosso J, Lyubomirsky S, White K, and

Spunt, R.P., Rassin, E., Epstein, L.M. (2009). Aversive and avoidant indecisiveness: Roles for regret proneness, maximization, and BIS/BAS sensitivities. Personality and Individual Differences 47. 256-261

Wells, A., Read, N., Laugharne, J., Ahluwalia, N. (2007) Alterations in mood after changing to a low-fat diet British Journal of Nutrition , Cambridge University Press

Williams and Bargh, 2008. Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Science, Vol. 322. no. 5901, pp. 606 – 607

Young, Simon N.; Leyton, Marco (2002) The role of serotonin in human mood and social interaction: Insight from altered tryptophan levels. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior. Vol 71(4), 857-865.

Notes on some key Studies

Schwartz et al (2002) investigated if more choices can make people feel worse, through 4 studies.

They created and assessed two instruments:

- the Maximization Scale - to measure tendency to matisfice or maximize

- Regret scale - to measure tendency to experience regret

From their studies they found:

- Individual differences exist in how one maximize outcomes in decision making.

- maximization correlated:

- Positively with regret, perfectionsm and depression.

- Negatively with happiness, optimism, life satisfaction and self esteem.

- Maximizers were more likely to report engaging in vertical social comparison not only in general, but also in consumer choices.

- And less happy and more regretful about consumer decisons than satisficers.

Further, some of their findings suggest maximizers were more regretful, and less satisfied with results, and more sensitive to regret; but also social comparison may affect their own assessment of their skills and mood."

Diad et al (2008) investigated if previous conclusions (from Schwartz et al, 2002) regarding maximizer well-being, remains consitent with a more unidimensial construct of the attribute.

- 2 measures of maximization are used:

- Schwarts et al's (2002) Maximizing Scale (MS)

- their own construct, Maximizing Tendency Scale (MTS)

- Their study found:

- MTS had greater internal consistency than MS

- MTS positively correlated with regret only, but less than MS

- MTS was more related on measures of choice dilemmas, and self reports on behaviour, than MS.

Therefore, they suggested maximizers are no different to satisficers, apart from the extent in which they maximize, and slightly more sensitive to regret.

Rassin et al (2007) investigated the Indecisiveness Scale (IS; Frost & Shows, 1993), a measure of general indecisiveness on validity and reliability.

They found:

- IS can have 4 specific items (on spare time, restaurant menu, and work/study assignments) removed to improve validity.

- It has short term reliability at least.

- It correlates positively with avoidance of decisions; panic of the uncontrollable and inevitably soon situations.

- Correlates negatively with decision making confidence

- Has shown indecisiveness is related with information gathered prior a decision

- Finally indecisiveness relates to OCD symptology

Spunt et al (2009) investigated the factor structure of indecisiveness whilst using both forms of the Indecisiveness Scale (Frost & Shows, 1993; Rassin et al, 2007)

- Indecisiveness was found to be a two factor model (aversion indecisiveness and avoidant indecisiveness)

- Aversion indecisiveness was found to be associated with increasing regret sensitivity, maximization and behavioural inhibition system (BIS) sensitivity (consistent with Schwartz et al’s (2002) findings).

- Avoidant indecisiveness was found to be associated with decreasing behavioural activation system (BAS) sensitivity

- However, the link between the two factors was still found to be unclear.