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Choice paralysis and the fear of growing up

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The Jam Experiment. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar from Columbia and Mark Lepper from Stanford published a study called, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” This study is colloquially referred to as the Jam Experiment.

Essentially, Iyengar and Lepper set out to investigate whether or not the generally held belief that “the more choices the better” proved true in actuality. They suspected what they coined a “choice overload” would actually demotivate people to make a choice. 

To test their claim, they set up tasting booths in an upscale grocery store that displayed either a limited (6) or an extensive (24) selection of different flavors of jam. They measured customers’ initial attraction to the tasting booth, as well as subsequent purchasing behavior. 

After performing significance tests, they found that although customers were initially more attracted to the extensive choice booth, subsequent purchases at the limited selection booth beat out those at the extensive selection booth by a staggering 27%. In other words, humans are trash at making decisions when they are given too many choices. 

And I am the worst of them all. 

Ask my father, and he’ll tell you without hesitation that I spent most of high school complaining that my life was all routine and that I had no freedom to choose for myself. I saw our school system as a kind of trap that vacuumed the individualism right out of me. I said I couldn’t wait to graduate because then I’d have real agency to decide how my life looked. 

As always, the grass is always greener, and I now sit paralyzed by the choice overload that is adulthood.  

If I wanted to, I could drop out, buy a one-way ticket to Florence, and never come back. If I wanted to, I could spend every free second I had in the library until I’d written a three-part novel series from the perspective of the grass on Meyer Green. If I wanted to, I could shave my head. Buy a cat. Sell the cat. Buy another. Toss this computer in the garbage and never finish writing this article. 

Now, most of these would be shit decisions, and I understand that. But the message stands — for probably the first time in my life, almost the entirety of it is up to me. You’d think I might have had this realization about a year and four months ago when I left for college. However, this university babies its freshmen similarly to how a parent does their children, and for a long time, I still felt like I had one telling me how my life should look. 

This is not the case anymore. It may sound incredibly simple, but days here feel like the extensive choice booth. “Adult” life is what I thought I wanted — unbridled freedom to construct my life from scratch. This prospect, though, actually leaves me paralyzed by the infinite number of options I have. The choices I had to make in high school were significant, yes, but they were significantly more limited than they are now. There is no rubric for almost anything I do, and although this sounds exhilarating in theory, I end up sitting still, unsure of where to move. This is a lot of pressure for someone who still watches Spongebob. 

For now, I’ll just try to buy some jam.

Contact Malia Mendez at mjm2000 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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