Paralyzed By Too Many Choices

A perfectly orchestrated backyard party took an ugly turn when the bounce house was emptied and all 15 little friends and twice as many adults gathered around to watch the 5-year old open a mountain of gifts. That’s when the birthday girl melted into a puddle of tears.

Some rights reserved by Simon Shek

Melissa’s embarrassed parents threatened punishment if she didn’t “stop right now!” which only made things worse. She ran to her room and slammed the door.

I’m sure a child psychologist would have had a field day citing poor parenting skills, hidden anger, deep-seated fear or some form of attention deficit. I saw it as much less complicated. Melissa was the victim of too many choices. I know because I feel the same way when I go into a supermarket or try to determine which cell-phone plan is the best.

When I have too many choices my brain goes into overload and then it just stalls out. I cannot make a decision and all I want to do is to run to my room and slam the door!

In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, (Ecco, 2016) author Barry Schwartz says that freedom and individual choice has a downside. “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded,” he writes. “At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Recently, I attempted to count the number of choices in the cookie aisle at the supermarket in my neighborhood. When I hit triple digits I stopped. That makes me crazy! How can I expect to make the right choice when I have so many options? Schwartz says so many choices may be a sign that commercial capitalism is bad for us. Several, not hundreds, of choices would give us the freedom to show our individuality without pushing us into the maddening dilemma of having to make the perfect choice.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered ways to escape the tyranny of too many choices.

1. I stay away from places known for an abundance of choice. I depend on experts to narrow the possibilities to a number I can manage easily.

2. I avoid shopping malls, preferring warehouse clubs. Their buyers narrow my choices from hundreds to just one or two. I can deal with that.

3. Manufacturers’ coupons narrow my choices considerably in the grocery store. I create a list based on items that are on sale and for which I have a coupon. My choices are made for me long before I walk through the door.

In addition, researching online in the quiet of my office helps me to narrow my choices for a variety of items before I ever leave home.

If they’d asked me, I would have suggested that Melissa’s parents move the mountain of gifts to another location, bringing out just one or two gifts at a time. Or better yet, scale the party down to just a few friends to avoid being overwhelmed by too much of a good thing.

Question: If you’ve found yourself frustrated by too many choices, what have you done to deal with it? Let’s talk about it in the comments section here.

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37 replies
  1. Omaloriann
    Omaloriann says:

    I’m like you, Mary, I shut down. At work I will have hundreds of reports that need filing ‘right now’ – thats why they are still on the back burner, till I can sort them and narrow them down & then deal with them. And shoe shopping? Oh my, I hate shoe shopping for the same reason. Unbelievably overwhelmed at times and my mind just goes blank and thats all she wrote.

  2. Cyberiannomad
    Cyberiannomad says:

    It scares me when I hear people say that there are too many choices. I’m always afraid marketing will listen to them and reduce the choices I can make. Why is there a problem with choices? Unless it’s life or death, it can be undone. If you make a bad decision you use it as a learning experience. I suspect the people who have problems with decisions are perfectionists and are afraid of making mistakes. Please, don’t ruin it for the rest of us by taking away our ability to choose!

  3. Yvy
    Yvy says:

    I remember the same situation with my children 50 years ago. I was always aware that my children were at their worst behavour at their birthday parties. Things have not improved. Recently, I attended the two year old party for my great grand-son and say the same thing happening – too many presents and too many people. Maybe a good guideline should be no more presents at one time than the child’s age. Other presents can be given later with an emphasis on who gave it, which is missing when there is an abundance of gifts.

  4. Lori
    Lori says:

    I used to think this was because I have ADD. But I am seeing how there are many people who are feeling the same way as me. I don’t like to be bombarded with so many choices, when I am well aware that there are only a need for a few of these things. Why in America do we have so much too choose from? Overindulged country is my thought!!!!

  5. Ruth
    Ruth says:

    I try to shop at the same few stores. I check sales first and norrow my choices by the sale items, coupons I have the things I use all the time. I get in get what I need and get out. If I want “goodies” I try to make them. That way I have control over ingredients and costs, or I use a sale and coupon combo, it limits the choices.
    Clothes wise, I go to one or two stores where i know the clothes fit well, I have coupons and they are having sales. No regrets and no over spending.
    Big purchases I compare shop on line/consumers and then pick a store that is convenient and matches prices. done!

  6. SandraJ
    SandraJ says:

    I couldn’t successfully food shop after my parents died on vacation in an accident–I’d get to the store and really was paralyzed by all the choices and couldn’t pick one…I don’t know how we survived then!!

  7. Gloria Whaley James
    Gloria Whaley James says:

    Nearly 40 years ago, a very wise woman shared the secret to successful birthday parties. Invite one more child than you child’s age! Simple: 5 years old — invite 6 children. Works every time!

  8. pavlica
    pavlica says:

    ok…so if you have triple digit choices for cookies don’t buy any! eating unhealthy food is bad for you after all…and coupons…forget it? (always usually for UNHEALTHY food!!) if we would narrow our choices down to only healthy items…we would decrease our risk of all types of diseases…which are much more costly than saving pennies here and there with coupons!! c’mon people…your health is the most important thing you have…it is very expensive to be sick..grow up and eat right! even the recipes on this site being touted as cost cutters will eventually make you fat and unhealthy..

    • Andrea B
      Andrea B says:

      no, there are GREAT coupons to be had! toilet paper, olive oil, tom’s toothpaste, method laundry detergent, organic chicken, yogurt and milk or soymilk, there are even coupons for organic salad and fresh fruit all the time. check out or subscribe to driscoll’s and earthbound farms’ newsletters & you’ll see coupons aren’t all for unhealthy!

  9. Elle
    Elle says:

    When grocery shopping, I stick to items I already know my family likes. For example, I only buy 3-4 kinds of cereal. The others don’t even tempt me because I’m not willing to spend money on something we may dislike. At the meat counter, I buy the most affordable beef, pork, chicken, turkey and fish. Then I go home and look up recipes that either use those cuts or can be adapted to fit what I bought. It’s fun, affordable, and usually yummy because I don’t try recipes containing spices or ingredients my family doesn’t enjoy. In the past, when our budget was tighter than it is now, I used to make a menu plan that made shopping very easy. For example, every Monday evening we had a pasta dish, every Tuesday was tacos, every Wednesday was chicken, etc. So when I went to the store I wasn’t tempted to buy anything not on the list. And I still had some leeway concerning variety. On pasta night, I could make spaghetti, lasagna, goulash, pasta salad, mac and cheese casserole, etc. Tacos could be fish tacos, bean and cheese tacos, ground beef tacos, veggie tacos, etc. It was easy, fast, and affordable. For things like cell phones, I decide AHEAD OF TIME what features I
    want. For example, if I only want a basic talk/text/data plan, I don’t
    need to be pricing the latest smartphone. Narrowing down what I’m
    looking for BEFORE I shop automatically
    ‘narrows the field’ before I ever start comparing what ‘s out there.

  10. millie
    millie says:

    Aldi shopping gives me fewer choices (one brand of flour, sugar, yogurt etc.) and good to excellent quality with low prices. Coupons and all that organizing gives me brain overload. Also Trader Joe’s has gourmet items, and mostly store brands, and low prices. Then there is Costco for the rest.

  11. ShirlSumm
    ShirlSumm says:

    I agree with Mary on this one. It sounds too overwhelming even for me. If it was a tremendous lot of work to organize a party like this, it’s probably too much for any child. Keep it (life) simple.

  12. Andrea B
    Andrea B says:

    “Too many choices” is not the problem. Overconsumption is the problem. When you go in and
    feel you have to have them all, that’s when you cannot make a choice. I
    go in the cereal aisle, where there’s probably over 100 varieties.
    Except I don’t eat flakes. There’s 60 left. Except I don’t eat cereal
    with nuts or dried fruit in them. There’s 30 left. No chocolate cereal.
    Down to 20. No apple, no honey, no cookies and none made out of corn. 5
    left. I like those 5 left. Is 5 too many? No. Did I have to try a lot of
    cereal to know which 5 I like? If that’s what the “too many choice” was
    arguing against, I would agree – but since it’s not, I say there’s
    nothing wrong with discovering what could be your new favorite flavor of
    something. (Unless, of course, they discontinue it, like Caramel

    My mom, a person who never ever can make up her mind (due to a childhood
    where she was told her decisions were bad & then her mind was made
    up for her), has always been amazed that I can decide right away if I
    love or hate or want or don’t want something. So decision-making doesn’t
    paralyze me. But I still believe it’s not the products, and large
    variety of them, but rather a desire to have something in particular.
    Why else would you comparison shop for a lawnmower? If you needed one,
    would you chose between the 2 offered (let’s say a manual or automatic)?
    Or would you want to chose between electric, gas, manual, automatic,
    adjustable height, straight or flex wheels, pull or button start, where
    the gas is refilled, color and size?

    No only is “too many choices” blaming everyone else, but indicating that
    it’s wrongful that we live in a capitalistic society where companies
    and individuals have the freedom to sell their products is absurd. Would
    you go around and say, “Ok, General Mills and Kellogg’s, you are each
    allowed to sell 3 different kinds of cereal. Post, you have to limit
    yourself to 1. And Kashi, Barbara’s, Quaker, Store Brand and you 5 other
    companies, you’re outta here!” Only those strong enough to survive (aka
    ones consumers buy) will remain in a couple years (through clearances
    and discontinuations), but how can you tell a company to not try putting
    banana flavor with their cereal or adding cinnamon, just because you
    feel overwhelmed by the desire to have it all?

  13. Pigoff123
    Pigoff123 says:

    I agree. We have to many choices these days. I usually stick with what is on sale and what I have a coupon match up for. I stock up and wait for the next sale. My brothers and my granddaughter are picky eaters so I don’t have many choices anyway which makes it easier.

  14. Debbie G.
    Debbie G. says:

    I didn’t expect the mound of gifts when I planned my 4 year old’s simple birthday party (play at the park, make some homemade bubble blowers, have pizza and cake and we’re done!) and invited his whole preschool class. Fortunately, the trend in our area, for this age, at least, has been to NOT open presents at the party. We separated them into 3 different groups, and my child had several opportunities to open a smaller amount. I didn’t feel that we could wait and open one a week because we needed to write thank you notes, but now that they’ve been opened… several repeats have been returned, a few have been opened, and there’s a tub of toys hidden until he needs a treat. Then we’ll just pull out a birthday present!

    On the shopping side, I limit myself to 1 or 2 stores for clothes and coupon and sale items from my LIST when I go for groceries!

  15. g8isgr8
    g8isgr8 says:

    In Nevada and so CA, where I live, Fresh & Easy has been taking over smaller locations vacated by chain stores which closed. Their selection is more limited, but totally satisfying, They offer a dozen items to gain extra points each week as well as allowing you to get actual money off your purchase. And thet send a weekly flyer with another 10% your purchase and sometimes more!

  16. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I lived in Russia in the early 1990’s. At the market they didn’t have specific cuts of meat. They chopped up the animal on a wooden stump with an ax and tossed the meat on the counter. You picked through, weighed the piece you wanted, paid and put it in your own plastic bag. Cheese? One or two big wheels and they cut it for you. We had no idea what kind it was. Yup, pretty primitive but easy to shop. Upon returning to the U.S., I went in the grocery store and just stared at all the pre-package meats and cheeses. Could not make a choice.

    BTW, I’ve since returned to my city in Russia and things are nice and modern now.

    • g8isgr8
      g8isgr8 says:

      AMEN to this also! When I returned from 3 years in Moscow in the late 70’s the abundance of fresh local produce in Austria was really what blew my mind! Not to mention visiting the US and seeing grocery stores then. Today’ s huge stores still blow my mind!

  17. GG
    GG says:

    “A mountain of gifts”? No child needs that many presents for their birthday – they’re then going to have to choose every time they want to play. (and most of those gifts will never be played with, will they?) There are so many non-profits and charities that would have loved to be the beneficiary of gifts that the family could have collected in lieu of birthday gifts. It truly warms the heart to read about families that collect gifts for animal shelters, homeless shelters, children’s programs, etc.

    • g8isgr8
      g8isgr8 says:

      Teaching sharing with the less fortunate rather than who has the most expensive and expansive toy collection on the block would be the biggest gift to give a young person in our world today…

    • mgoose
      mgoose says:

      My niece donated her gifts to the local children’s hospital on her last birthday (her 9th). It was her idea. She’s a sweetie.

  18. Dan
    Dan says:

    I’ve had this problem shopping online for electronic or home improvement items. I’ll have 10 or more windows open to compare and get so frustrated that I just close them all. Not so much at the grocery store…I buy sale items, or store brand, and I know which store has the best price & quality for the items that carry their name.
    Clothing—I’m a guy, if it fits, I buy it. LOL But I understand your point.

  19. kathyw
    kathyw says:

    You might also want to check out Dr. Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School and an expert in the art of choosing, who wrote a book entitled: The Art of Choosing.

  20. MnM
    MnM says:

    Clothes’ shopping is even more exasperating! Sizes are not consistent, styles often for the young and the selections are endless.Trying your choices at the store can be so exhausting!

  21. J Eleanor
    J Eleanor says:

    I try to buy most of my groceries at Aldi’s which is a smaller store and the things i can’t get there i go to Woodman’s warehouse store.

    • Frank I
      Frank I says:

      I agree. I shop almost exclusively at Aldi. I love the quality, the prices cannot be beat, and I don’t have to ponder over 27 different brands of canned green beans. I get in and out with a minimum of fuss and for a lot less!

    • maxhalberg
      maxhalberg says:

      Wish they had these in Southern California! Sounds awesome. I like Trader Joes and Fresh and Easy because there isn’t a huge selection.

  22. Q
    Q says:

    I saw a woman from another country in the cereal aisle of a big grocery store almost ready to cry; there was just so much for her to find what she needed/wanted. I felt for her and sometimes feel that way myself. If you see someone struggling, try to help them find what they need because if is even more daunting for them than it is for us…

    • Keith Boggs
      Keith Boggs says:

      I had this same experience after being on the mission field. I melted down in the cereal aisle on arriving home to the US after having lived almost 4 years in a country that had usually only one choice of whatever it was that you went in to buy. I left the store that day without buying anything until I could make a more specific list of items I knew I wanted.

    • Andrea B
      Andrea B says:

      You hit it on the head. She “needed/wanted” – it’s not the choices, but the desire for overconsuming. Blaming choices is like blaming the cookies for our weight problem.

  23. LindaBabe
    LindaBabe says:

    That’s exactly why I shop at my local Co-op and Farmer’s Market. Each one of them would fit in the fresh veggie / bakery section of the larger local markets. I started shopping there because the bigger stores were too physically taxing, and stayed with them when I was better because it was SO much easier. I think I save money, too, because things not on my list don’t just “jump into my cart”. And, members get weekly specials, which saves a little bit more.

    • Carolyn K
      Carolyn K says:

      Check the website of a store with too many choices. Zero in on your item. Shop specifically for that one thing. Then LEAVE the store. This helps me through the overload of images. When I know what I’m looking for, it narrows my field of vision.


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