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The paradox of Stanford student choice

For students like Josh Cobler ’20, the world of academic and career possibilities that Stanford offers can be difficult to navigate. When becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a software engineer doesn’t feel quite right, simply knowing there are other jobs out there isn’t completely reassuring.

Cobler entered Stanford with pre-med plans, but after disliking and struggling with chemistry classes, he changed his mind. Cobler turned to economics, until he decided he “wasn’t very good at math.” He’s now an anthropology major. Though he enjoys his classes and has conducted his own anthropology research, questions about his future career still abound. 

“There’s this theoretical, like, ‘You’re in anthropology, so you could do social work,” he said. “You could do journalism, you could do academia, but you could also work in government. You could also do social media. You could become a consultant. You can do and be all these different things that don’t really tie together.”

The paradox

The “paradox of choice,” a term coined by Swarthmore College psychology professor Barry Schwartz in 2004, states that, somewhat contrary to popular belief, people presented with more options may have a harder time choosing between them — and feel less satisfied with their final decisions. 

Schwartz’s theory grew out of research on consumer choices, such as those made in supermarkets. The paradox suggests, for example, that shoppers selecting one chocolate bar from a display of five dozen varieties will be less satisfied with the one they settle on than shoppers choosing one bar out of ten options. The customers who have more options wonder whether one of the many bars they didn’t buy might have been tastier than the one they did.

Schwartz has suggested that the paradox extends beyond decisions made in stores. He told Pacific Standard in 2014 that he’s observed its application in the world of social media, for instance. 

“Nobody’s good enough and you’re always worried you’re missing out,” he said of the way viewing constant online updates makes people feel. “I see this as an extension of what I wrote about.”

In other words, it becomes more difficult to be satisfied with your own life when confronted with many other (potentially better) things you could be doing.

Making choices at Stanford

“The secret to happiness is low expectations,” Schwartz told his 2005 TED talk audience with characteristic directness. And most incoming Stanford students’ expectations are high.

“They want to save the world,” said Josh Ojo-Osagie ’20, an energy engineering and management major.

Ojo-Osagie, however, disagrees with Schwartz’s point about low expectations. He says he’s navigated a world of myriad choices by setting a clear goal and sticking to it. Ojo-Osagie plans to start an energy company after graduation, an objective he had in mind even before beginning college. His career plans have guided him in other decisions, including his field of study.

But he worries other students “settle” when it comes to job choice. 

“When you talk to freshmen versus when you talk to seniors, their goals and visions are different,” Ojo-Osagie said. “At a certain point, they want to go into something secure.”

Not all students are able to connect their academic and career interests as clearly as he has, though — an especially common problem outside of engineering, students said. For Cobler, the problem is not that he believes he won’t get a job at all, but that no one has been able to tell him what specific jobs outside of academia his anthropology studies prepare him for.

“I don’t think I know how to look for a job,” Cobler said, “and part of that is because I don’t know what types of jobs are available to me.”

With Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley, the largest career fairs tend to cater to STEM students. But the BEAM career education center is attempting to address the struggle some social science and humanities students navigate when they’re unsure about how best to apply their skills.

“In the last few years, BEAM has started to host smaller events, specifically geared toward students in the School of Humanities & Sciences, to meet with employers and alumni from diverse fields,” wrote Laura Dominguez Chan, associate dean of career education and director of career communities, in an email to The Daily. 

A new Social Impact and Education Fair addresses the lack of representation those fields receive in Stanford’s main career fairs, and BEAM has also added events focused on marketing, the music industry, writing jobs and more.

Dominguez Chan also said all Stanford students gain abilities that help them get jobs. 

“Employers look at many backgrounds when hiring students and seek skills that will add value to their workplace,” she wrote. “These skills are developed in all degrees.”

English major Maddie Kim ’20 has helped students look for opportunities to apply their skills in her role as a peer advisor. She collects emails about job opportunities and compiles them into a digest her department sends to its students. 

Kim says employers seeking English student hires have included on-campus summer humanities programs, local publications and wikiHow. Still, “only a handful” of organizations actively seek out English majors each quarter, she said.

“As somebody who came to Stanford knowing that I wanted to study English because I loved literature and creative writing and poetry, thinking about what to do career-wise was not something that I had really encountered in any institutional or academic context,” Kim said. “And I don’t think I really have yet.”

She added, “I think that to really get a sense of what might be out there, you would have to kind of take the initiative on your own to go schedule an appointment with a career coach, for example.”

Sorting our options

The paradox of choice has provided food for thought to social scientists and armchair psychologists alike for the past 15 years, but attempts to duplicate the paradox in studies have produced mixed results. Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Itamar Simonson has researched the paradox of choice in consumer settings and considers it imperfect.

“I think that the paradox of choice has been overstated,” Simonson said. “People usually have ways to sort the options, define their priorities and thus simplify the decisions.”

Schwartz does offer some suggestions for people faced with “choice overload:” we should evaluate our goals before making decisions, focus on satisfaction rather than perfection and find ways to narrow down our options.

“Everybody needs a fishbowl,” he’s said of metaphorically limiting our options. The question is simply how to define the boundaries of that fishbowl, and how large it needs to be.

Cobler said that early in his time at Stanford, he started thinking more about how real-life career options extended beyond the traditional jobs he’d long considered. Seeing the wide variety of opportunities Stanford students pursued proved positive for him in many ways. 

“In some ways, seeing that there were more choices was really good for me,” he said. At the same time, once it started to widen into, ‘Oh, you can kind of do anything with your degree,’ I was kind of sitting there like, ‘I have literally no idea what I’m gonna do.’”

Other adults offered less-than-clear feedback, too.

“There was one econ professor who was just kind of like, ‘Based on your interests, I don’t really know why you’re doing econ,’” Cobler recalled.

Choosing what to do with one’s life is a different process from choosing what kind of chocolate to buy. And important life decisions often consist of a series of small choices, which complicates decision-making. 

“The order in which people decide whether to choose a particular occupation and which specific option they prefer within a domain can make a difference,” Simonson said. For a Stanford student, that could look like choosing a major and then using the major to inform future career options. Or, like Ojo-Osagie, other students let their dream job guide academic decisions

Students agreed that the solution is not to eliminate choice entirely. 

“There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice,” Schwartz told his TED audience. “There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is.”

“I think it’s really important that people have the opportunity to explore, and I think that choices are good,” Cobler reflected. “But I also think that it would have been helpful if, over these past couple of years, I’d been presented with tangible people or actual paths that people went down.” It’s easier to make the most of the gift of choice when we’re also given tools for managing our options.

Contact Jasmine Kerber at jkerber ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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