I suffer from an unpleasant psychological condition.  I realise this is a dodgy admission from a Chartered Psychologist – someone you might suppose to be well balanced and in control of their emotions – but I’ll just have to risk your thinking less of me.  The condition I suffer from is called choice overload.

Choice is supposed to be ‘a good thing’ but, more often than not, it throws me into a state of dissonance. There are numerous situations where I become paralysed by choice overload.  Bookshops, for example, do it to me. The invitation to browse sounds innocent enough but whenever I cross the threshold of a bookshop without a list of titles to search for, I rapidly become overwhelmed. There are simply too many books that I know I should read.  Supermarkets do it to me too. Take the ostensibly straightforward business of choosing a breakfast cereal – or even Ryvita biscuits.  I can only survive by staying blinkered and buying exactly what I have always bought.

Trade exhibitions do it to me; all those samey stalls with well intentioned people eager to persuade me I want something I have never realised I wanted.  My wife does it to me. The suggestion that a room needs decorating means agonising over colour charts selecting a shade of white that will complement the curtains.  Choosing a holiday is hell; all those glossy brochures with endless photographs of empty tropical beaches and identical looking hotels.  Making soup does it to me. My helpful wife instantly produces countless recipe books, each with subtle differences.

It all reminds me of those (unethical) experiments with poor cats that were rewarded with food whenever they patted a triangle and punished with an electric shock whenever patted a circle. The experimenters gradually smoothed the corners off the triangle until it became more like an ellipse and then, slowly, a circle.  Cats, faced with too many fine discriminations, and under pressure to make the right decision and avoid an electric shock, had what we’d describe as a nervous breakdown. 

It seems that I am not alone. When people were presented with six pots of different jams, 30% bought one.  However, when people were presented with 24 different jams, only 3% bought one.  The difference is explained by choice overload.  Faced with too many fine discriminations, most people opted not to make a decision and left empty handed.

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