"Ultimately when you’re in school, the answers to questions like, ‘What’s important to me?’ are somewhat, well, academic," says Chris, a twenty-five-year-old from New Orleans. who I spoke to "You’re in school. You’re taking classes, moving forward in a well-defined system. Then you graduate and suddenly there are a million systems, a million structures to choose from. It’s overwhelming.
"The fact is, life after college is ‘real.’ You have real decisions to make like: How important is money to me? How much time do I want to spend at work? How important is it that I have a job that I love? How can I stay healthy? Do I want a lot of challenge intellectually? Do I want a varied experience? What kind of risk do I want to take in my life career wise? Is it important for me to be busy all the time or do I need downtime? How much sleep do I need?"
Have you had trouble dealing with all the choices available to us during out twenties and thirties? Do you have trouble making decisions after looking at all those options?
This is the second in a series of posts about the psychology of making good decisions in the contexts of life in our twenties and thirties. In the first post we talked about the good and bad things of having much more freedom after college. In this post we will discuss how with every opportunity there is a cost and the more choices we explore, the worse we can feel about our decisions.
Understanding Opportunity Costs in Our Decisions
After college, you’re faced with what seems to be an endless array of choices that can often time be overwhelming They can take the form of small questions such as, “Where should I get an apartment?” “Should I buy a car?” or “Should I pay eighty dollars a month for a gym membership?” to tougher questions like, “Should I move to a new city away from my friends and family for that dream job or find a job that is not so great but is near a lot of friends?” or “Should I take that job that pays well but I don’t enjoy or take a pay cut and work at a job that I love?”
In his book The Tyranny of Choice, Barry Schwartz has found that much of the negative feelings that young professionals experience while trying to make all these decisions stems from what are called opportunity costs. This means that the cost of any option we choose involves passing up the opportunities that a different option would have provided us.
For example, whenever you go through the process of making a decision, you first determine the value and quality of each possible choice by comparing it with all the other available options. The problem with this is that when you finally do make a decision, you experience a negative psychological cost because you have eliminated the opportunity to experience all the other options you were looking at.
Opportunity costs are a part of every decision because you’re choosing between two or more options. The major psychological problem lies in the fact that the more options or avenues you look at, the more opportunity costs you will accumulate, and the greater the intensity of the negativity you feel about missing out on all the other opportunities as a result of the choice you finally do make.
This negative affect can easily be seen in the working lives of today’s young professionals. After graduation, you are exposed to so many more career options than you knew about during college and after learning about all the options out there, you finally have to decide upon one job to work in. After making your decision, it’s easy to begin thinking about all the other opportunities you gave up by choosing that one path. As a result, you can become less satisfied with the decision you came to.
On the flip side, you may be one of the many college graduates who can’t decide on a career path to pursue and continue hopping from job to job, looking for the perfect fit. But the more you look, the more the opportunity costs pile up, often resulting in major procrastination and indecisiveness as you put off making a definitive career decision.
Consequences of The Tyranny of Choice
This tyranny of choice can cause you to feel what Schwartz describes as “decision-making paralysis,” preventing you from making important decisions that are needed to move forward with your life. In Schwartz’s view of what college graduates are experiencing, "Everything is up for grabs; almost anything is possible. And each possibility they consider has its attractive features, so that the opportunity costs associated with those attractive options keep mounting up, making the whole decision-making process decidedly unattractive. What, they wonder, is the right thing to do? How can they know?"
One of the most psychologically distressing consequences of all these opportunity costs is the large amount of regret you can feel when you finally decide on one option. Most of us assume that avoiding regret means making sure you’ve checked out all the other options before making a decision. However, this can create a vicious cycle because the more options you take a look at, the more opportunity costs you begin experiencing.
These costs can cause you to experience more and more regret once you finally come to a decision. This can then cause you to start searching for a new and improved choice, starting the process all over again.
When the Newness Wears Off
Another psychological phenomenon that contributes to this vicious cycle of opportunity costs and regret is something psychologists refer to as adaptation. In other words, we naturally become accustomed to things and start taking them for granted. For example, think for a minute of how good it feels when you get a new computer, move into a new apartment, or buy a ton of IKEA furniture.
You quickly experience a rush of excitement from your new purchase. However, over time the novelty begins to wear off, and your enthusiasm wanes. Soon your new purchase doesn’t evoke the same positive feelings that it used to. This is because inside all of us there is a built-in psychological mechanism that does not allow you to sustain the positive feelings you experience about new things you attain.
This adaptation can be seen in the experiences that college graduates have in their first jobs out of college. After graduation, young professionals can go into the working world thinking that they will be in an exciting environment, working with interesting people, and learning new things each and every day. But soon they realize that the working world doesn’t meet all the expectations they had developed while in school.
Other times, a you can land a job that is exciting and stimulating, but inevitably it loses its luster and some level of dullness or boredom begins to set in. In both cases, what do people begin doing next? Looking at job listings and reading all the exciting descriptions. Soon they start imagining the possibilities they could be experiencing in all those other jobs (most of them unrealistic).
This then starts the process of accruing opportunity costs because graduates in both groups think of all the things they are missing, which in turn makes them more dissatisfied with their current job (even if it’s a good one). They then hit themselves with a double whammy because they are disappointed with the job decision they made and feel regret about the options they didn’t choose.
Questions to Comptemplate:
Do you look at all the options when making a decisions?
Do you have trouble making decisions after looking at all those options?
Do you constantly feel regret about your decisions after you make them?
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