I recently caught up with someone I hadn't seen in over ten years and I was struck, as I often am lately, at how much life seems to be passing me by. Is that true? Or did I just choose a different life? Yep, I'm making choices, even if I don't always think so. And am I happy with my choices? If not, what then?

These are the moments I tune into House Hunters International and contemplate: would things look differently from Rome?

All of Your Options

Forget the paradox of choice, seeing all your options at once may just make you happier with your choice. Or so says new research out of Stanford Business School. "... in the chocolate experiment, the researchers presented participants with detailed descriptions of fine chocolates (such as dark chocolate ganache with black tea and hints of citrus and vanilla), and asked them to choose which one they wanted to taste. The “simultaneous” group saw the whole list at once, whereas the “sequential” group saw one at a time and stopped once they saw a description of the chocolate they wanted to sample. After they had picked a chocolate and tasted it, participants in both groups filled out a short survey about their satisfaction with their chosen confection. The result: sequential choosers were less satisfied with their chocolates than were participants in the simultaneous group. And, when offered the opportunity to switch to a different chocolate — a randomly selected one, they were told — more of the sequential choosers opted to do so, even though they knew virtually nothing about it."

But why? In a sequential mode we are waiting for better options to come along though usually they don't. So how to mitigate this bias when many of our options are offered sequentially (e.g., boyfriends, jobs, investment opportunities)?

"One strategy Shiv advises is to mentally convert a sequential choice into a 'quasi-simultaneous' one by recalling past instances of the best options you ever chose or of options that, in hindsight, you regret passing over. Once you do that, you can compare your present option with those recalled, almost as if you had all your options before you at once."

When Choice Jams You Up

Sheena Iyengar's The Art of Choosing details her research on decision-making processes and the role of choice. Turns out that having a wide range of options does not necessarily make humans happier. She designed the Draeger's Market experiment where shoppers were confronted by two jam-tasting kiosks: one with 24 different types and the other with 6 types. The kiosk with only 6 types of jams attracted fewer shoppers than the other kiosk, but ten times as many buyers.

She says, "Cognitively, we just have a harder time doing the math, comparing and contrasting so many different prospects." She also learned in her research that there are conditions under which you would do better to have others choose for you than choose for yourself.

Something, I'd say, marketers have known for years. Now there's research to support the madness of mad men.