When Choice Becomes Tyranny

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive.  But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”     – Barry Schwarz, The Paradox of Choice

By confronting the conundrum that we all face in this telling paragraph from The Paradox of Choice, social psychologist Barry Schwarz reminds us that more is not always more. Little has changed in the thirteen years since publication, except perhaps for the awkward intrusion of some dubious choices now on public record thanks to social media.

Schwarz is hardly the only one to spot the irony, although one of the few to tackle the problem head on. Buddhists and mindfulness practitioners urge us to enter a space where the chatter of inconsequential choice fades away. People with determined drive dismiss distracting bumps by keeping a disciplined eye on the road before them. Those who overcome decision fatigue avoid anxious rumination.

Such strategies offer insight along with better practices, but Barry Schwarz marks a more direct path revealing the seduction of “better” is the real culprit. In Paradox, he lists eleven steps to overcome choice overload while cautioning we need practice, discipline and perhaps a mindset shift to win out. Fair warning, yet I’d venture that going straight to Schwarz’s Step Six, “Practice an Attitude of Gratitude” gives you a head start. For one thing, gratitude immediately helps with, other steps on the list by allaying regret and envy while ensuring harder ones like making decisions non-reversible, controlling expectations or anticipating adaptation are easier to take.

You give (and thankfully avoid) so much when you practice Grateful Leadership. Too much choice is burdensome to both you and your team. Delegating stress and anxiety along with responsibility is no kindness. Being an agile leader means accepting and appreciating what you have, not fretting over sunk costs. Risk aversion is poor insurance against real challenge. When moving confidently forward has become your only choice, getting there is that much easier, and acknowledging your shared commitment surely helps.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute of Learning Vice-President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.