It’s here: the days we’ve all been waiting for. After a year of Facetime dinners, puzzles instead of parties, and endless loaves of banana bread, those of us who live in nations where COVID-19 vaccines are accessible are now eagerly looking towards a summer of recreation, socializing, and freedom. But what will this feel like after months spent choosing between re-watching The Office for the twentieth time or an extra early bedtime?
Spoiled by choice
Choice overload occurs when we are faced with many options. As consumers, we may experience choice overload when having to decide among lots of products available for purchase. Though we often believe that more is better, in fact, having to select from a large assortment can lead to lower satisfaction and higher levels of regret.1
The effects of choice overload are felt not just in a material consumption context, but also when it comes to selecting experiences. A 2019 study conducted by Sthapit, Kozak, and Coudounaris found that vacationers were apt to experience choice overload when presented with many possible leisure activities while holidaying.2 These results suggest that we may experience similar frustrations when faced with a dramatic increase in entertainment options post-lockdown.
In addition to dissatisfaction and regret, choice overload can also prompt mental fatigue. Our brains can only make so many decisions within a given period of time: after a certain point, cognitive resources are depleted, and even simple choices become overwhelming. Pignatiello and colleagues summarize (2020): “[T]his phenomenon, known as decision fatigue, describes the impaired ability to make decisions and control behavior as a consequence of repeated acts of decision-making.”3
In sum, this means that being inundated with choices can precipitate poorer self-regulation and increased reliance on automatic, heuristic-based System 1 processing.4
Don’t believe me? Think about the last time you bought groceries. Chances are you walked right past the candy on your way into the store and headed straight for the first item on your list. Forty-five minutes later, after non-stop decision-making, you were likely much more tempted to swipe a sweet on your way out (that’s why seductive treats are displayed near the checkout).
This cognitive pattern also manifests in more sinister settings. In 2011, the New York Times chronicled the outcomes of two prisoners with identical crimes and sentences who were both applying for parole. The prisoner whose case was heard in the morning was granted freedom; his afternoon counterpart was not.5 In addition, research suggests that decision fatigue impacts physicians’ decision-making processes and can affect the care that patients receive.6
Choice overload, post-COVID
So, here we are, looking forward to social gatherings, restaurant dates, seeing movies in actual theaters, and more. It is possible that despite our eagerness to enjoy the finer things in life, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by this influx of opportunity, and could end up falling victim to both choice overload and decision fatigue. But fear not: we can take steps to ensure that our fun doesn’t suffer as a result of cognitive depletion.
Good enough is enough
There are those of us who continually seek out the ideal option, who are willing to devote extensive time and brainpower to carefully evaluating all possibilities in order to get the best of the best. In the coming months, these perfection-seekers, also known as maximizers, should follow the example of satisficers: those are content with the “good enough” route.7 When faced with conflicting invitations to a picnic, a party, and a pasta night, go with your gut and choose the activity that seems like it will bring you the most pleasure without spending inordinate time agonizing over the options.
No going back
Once you’ve made a decision, stick with it. Regret and indecision are hallmarks of choice overload that prompt dissatisfaction.8 Treat decisions as final, and avoid ruminating on what might have been.
Stop scrolling and start doing
Research has found that as time spent on social media platforms increases, the more users experience “FOMO” (fear of missing out).9 To avoid being haunted by images of social events and activities that you did not attend, cut the negativity off at the source. Limiting social media use may combat a host of negative correlates, including dissatisfaction and loneliness.10
So, as opportunities for out-of-the-house fun begin to roll in, remember to give your brain a break when faced with multiple opportunities: though you may be starved for variety, your cognitive reserves will need some time to catch up.