Imagine you’re buying a new cell phone. Would you rather have a ton of different options or only 1-2 choices? Usually, people assume that having more choices is better. In fact, in experiments that mimic game shows (“what’s behind door #1?) people will pay more money to have more options to choose from. But ironically, having more choices can be a source of distress. People feel less satisfied with their decision after it’s made when they have a bunch of different options to choose from, and sometimes people experience paralysis-by-analysis (they give up and don’t choose anything at all.). Some scientists refer to this as the “paradox of choice”—a lot of choices feels like something we want, but it ends up being bad for us.1
New research suggests that how supported we feel in our relationships affects how appealing we find having a lot of options/choices.2 Researchers manipulated whether people felt supported and cared for by having study participants write for a few minutes about either a supportive or unsupportive relationship in their lives (e.g., family, friend, romantic). In a control condition, another group of participants wrote about something unrelated to relationships (e.g., an object the participant owns). Researchers then measured participants’ preferences for having more options to choose from by asking participants to imagine (hypothetically) purchasing a new cell phone. Aside from the cost of the phone, participants were allowed to pay an additional fee to have more options from which to choose. Specifically, the alternatives given to participants were:
- Option A: You do not have to make a decision on which phone to get. The company decides for you.
- Option B: For a $5 fee, you can view and select from 3 of the 9 available models.
- Option C: For a $10 fee, you can view and select from 6 of the 9 available models.
- Option D: For a $15 fee, you can view and select from 9 of the 9 available models.
Participants in the control (non-relationship/neither supportive or unsupportive) condition picked option D most often—they wanted a lot of choices, even if they had to pay more money to get those choices. This is consistent with what we already knew: people prefer to have a bunch of options, and aren’t aware that more choices often lead to distress. Importantly, participants in the unsupportive relationship condition showed the same pattern of thinking (i.e., they showed a preference for more choices), indicating that simply having a relationship in mind (if it’s a crappy, unsupportive one) has the same impact on judgment as no relationship at all.
But participants in the supportive relationship condition (those who were primed to feel loved and cared for) were more likely to pick options A, B, or C (rather than Option D). In other words, these ‘support-primed’ participants were much more comfortable with having fewer options to choose from. In a second study, researchers found the same result (except they had participants imagine choosing a pair of shoes rather than a cell phone).2
Why did this happen? Why did feeling supported lead to preferring fewer options to choose from? The researchers argue that feeling supported leads people to feel calmer and less anxious, which then influences the decision-making process. If you’re more relaxed while making a decision between cell phones, you won’t need a ton of options to choose from and you’ll feel more confident in your decisions. As the researchers note, “supportive relationships help quell anxiety and reassure people, helping them feel more secure and calm. This should reduce the need for control and choice.” In other words, people tend to want more choices partially because they fear they’ll miss out on a great option, but if they feel supported by their loved ones, they have less to worry about missing out on.
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2Ybarra, O., Lee, D. S., & Gonzalez, R. (2012). Supportive social relationships attenuate the appeal of choice. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1186-1192.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.