At a grocery shop close to my hometown in the Bay Area, a Columbia Business School professor ran an experiment that would one day become a classic study on choice. Professor Sheena Iyengar set up a tasting booth at the store and alternated between a display of 24 jam options and six jam options. Nearly a third of the samplers purchased a jar when presented with a selection of six jams, compared to only 3 percent of samplers presented with 24 choices. Interestingly, too much choice can lead to a fear of making a decision or even an inability to make a decision.
If you're a customer overwhelmed with the burden of choosing from too many jams, you can go with the easy option to just not pick a jam. That's about as low-stakes as life will ever get. If you're a graduating student overwhelmed by the nebulous options of post-grad life, you can't avoid making a decision the way you can avoid buying a jar of jam. Chances are you're stuck with, maybe even paralyzed by, the overwhelming burden of choice.
It's a modern-day luxury to have so many options in one's early 20s, and Columbia students should be grateful that their education has opened up a wide variety of post-graduation life paths, from travel to finance. Unfortunately, that kind of gratitude-oriented logic doesn't work for most students who have spent the past 16 years in an educational system that has often left them unprepared to make decisions more impactful than what classes they should take.
College seniors are notoriously terrible at handling the ever-asked “what are you going to do when you graduate” question. Even the early-recruited finance and consulting seniors who landed full-time jobs in the fall are quick to add that they're not sure about their long-term career plans. Where did this anxiety come from? Blame the education system, blame the students, blame their parents, blame the economy.
The reasons for graduation anxiety are varied, but the result is mostly the same: Many elite college campuses have developed a culture of indecision. It's taboo to ask friends about post-graduation plans. There's camaraderie in knowing your classmates are as confused as you are. The day they declare their majors, humanities students know their long-term interests don't necessarily rely on which subject they choose to study. There's a feeling of stability in collective fear—you know you aren't alone in your uncertainty. For many college students, the culture of indecision is a coping mechanism for feeling lost, but is it healthy? I don't think so.
Living in a delusional culture of indecision, where an inability to make big decisions is accepted and sometimes even celebrated, can convince a young college graduate to keep avoiding and fearing big decisions. But making big decisions is a fundamental aspect of life. Graduates have to pick a jar of jam at some point, and thinking it's OK to wait in a grocery store forever is not only frustrating and anxiety-inducing, but also unfeasible.
If you feel like you're being accused of living in the culture of indecision, you may counter that you actually have the opposite problem—your problem isn't that you're avoiding big decisions but rather that you're thinking too much about them. Unfortunately, thinking too much about a decision is often the same thing as avoiding a decision. At a certain point, all the thinking and logic in the world may not help you come closer to making a better decision about which jar to pick.
As individuals, we can continue to accept the culture of indecision, believing that big choices are too formidable to be made while we're so young. Or we can change our attitudes. What if we instead accepted that our problem isn't too much choice, but rather our fear of choice? Aiming to create a healthier relationship with decision-making is a much better approach than aiming to avoid it by nestling in a culture of indecision.
Many Columbia students are in some ways lucky that their lives up to this point have involved very few tough decisions. But our education isn't complete if we graduate knowing more about what Aristotle has to say about making decisions than how to make decisions. Getting the most out of our college experience is up to us, and we have to take the initiative to learn how to develop a better attitude toward making decisions. The culture of indecision may shield us from making big choices, but we should be using our time in college to instead practice the life-long skill of coming to terms with the need to be decisive.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Balancing with Bhandari runs alternate Tuesdays.
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