Opinion | Columns

Free to choose, free to suffer

The presidential race is over, and with it the reminders ad nauseum of politicians and pundits to exercise our right to vote. MTV actually put it rather succinctly during election years from 1992 to 2008, coining the “Choose or Lose” slogan to complement Diddy’s more dramatized “Vote or Die.” Why are Americans so obsessed with this freedom of choice—or the illusion of it? Does having more options really make us happier?

Picking one presidential candidate among two (sorry, Gary Johnson) was easy enough. This week, we face the daunting charge of selecting from among hundreds of possible classes for the spring semester. While many of them are chosen for us by major constraints or Core requirements, and while some students are generally more restricted by things such as engineering, a number of us have space in our schedules for a “fun” class or two.

In theory, having hundreds of possibilities should be a positive thing. A long history of psychological research, in confirmation of the popular notion that choice is good, has indicated just how much we like to feel that we have the reins. In a famous 1978 study relating to self-determination theory, for instance, participants exhibited more motivation to complete puzzles when they were allowed to pick which puzzles to do and how much time to spend working on them, as compared to those who were simply assigned to the same ones.

Furthermore, it has been proven time and again that we’re more comfortable making decisions when we’re guaranteed the option of changing our minds later although we actually like a chosen option more when we know it’s final, thanks to some protective distortions that our brains automatically make. In other words, it’s the illusion of choice rather than the making of the choice itself that proves appealing to the subject. But as any Columbia student who has pored over CULPA reviews the night before her registration period will tell you, increasing the possibilities for choice can just as easily overwhelm the chooser. After a blackout frenzy of bulletin-reading and time-slot-manipulating, you’re all of a sudden registered for seven classes including Introductory Czech and the Vagina and the Other. And you’re a French major.

Psychologists have begun to direct their research toward this paradox of choice—that is, why we staunchly advocate for autonomy when too much of it can make us unhappy. Sheena Iyengar, one of the leading scholars on choice and a professor at the Columbia Business School, has published a handful of studies that challenge this mentality of “the more options the better” when it comes to making decisions. One of her studies in particular seems to connect this tendency to feel overwhelmed by choice to a character trait called maximizing. Maximizers are people who feel compelled to seek out the best possible option, often exhausting their resources in the process. They find it hard to settle for anything less.

I’d venture to guess that a good majority of students at Columbia and similarly competitive institutions across the country are maximizers, and it’s easy to see how this drive to seek the best possible outcome would lead, objectively, to greater success. But Iyengar and others have found that maximizers are, ironically, less happy with their decisions than those who more quickly settle for an acceptable option among many.

For college students, maximizing might mean obsessively poring through course listings, asking former students for advice, and scouring CULPA-esque sites for answers when trying to find the best classes—but to a gross excess, and to the point that they feel less happy with their choices after the fact. Certainly, it is a dilemma that Columbians share with students at any large university with ample resources for undergraduates, and anxiety would seem to increase directly with the number of options.
But those with maximizing tendencies at Columbia face another mixed blessing when it comes to having options—that of the immense metropolis that surrounds us. Should I get an internship during the year? Should I take a class at a peer institution, and should I do research at the Medical Center uptown, and should I go to the Met during my break today? Should I go out downtown?

With an overload of opportunity in New York, it’s easy to feel like we’re constantly missing out on something, and the overburdened, tightly-scheduled student body reflects the tendency to maximize what drives so many of us, achieving obvious benefits but with certain consequences for our well-being. We should work to view our incredible freedoms of choice as opportunities to be had and appreciated, but not to be the object of obsession. At a university in a city of endless avenues for choice, we must not let the subjunctive lead us astray. We must choose as best we can and move on, lest we unwittingly prove the MTV gurus just how right they were.

Caitlin Brown is a Columbia College junior majoring in psychology and comparative literature and society. Pick my Brain runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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