What is the Best Way to Help Teens Make Hard Decisions?

The agony of too many choices can be shared with anyone who has ever visited a restaurant with a six page menu or tried to decide which movie to watch on a new streaming account. A plethora of possibilities leave us feeling overwhelmed and confused. Not only is too much choice paralyzing, it can also leave you feeling like any choice that you do make is profoundly unsatisfying.

Consider something as simple as jam. That’s right. That sweet, fruity goodness otherwise known as peanut butter’s best friend. In a study by Sheena Iyenger of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University, two tasting tables with jams were set up in a public supermarket. One table offered six options, the other offered two dozen various flavors.

The table with the wider assortment lured 60 percent of the passers-by, while fewer options resulted in only 40 percent of people taste-testing. But it wasn’t the number of samplers that drives home the challenge of choice — it was what happened next.

Of the people that encountered the six option display, 30 percent of them purchased a jam. But at the table with 24?  Merely 3 percent of the participants purchased the product.

Now that is a drastic difference in decision making!

And this is pertinent to you how? If jam is not your jam, then perhaps extra credit will do the trick. Everybody loves extra credit—unless there are too many options. When students at Stanford University were offered six essays to choose from that would help bump up their grades, 74 percent of them lept at the opportunity. But when students were offered thirty prompts, they were much less likely to participate—oh, and for those who did, the quality of their work was far lower than that of their peers who had fewer choices.

Why Having Too Much Choice Can Be Difficult

Dating runs the same way. The more choices you have, the less likely you are to choose, and when (or if) you do, the less happy you are with your dating experience.

One study of hundreds of speed daters found that not only did a greater number of options lessen the odds of participants closing the deal for an evening out, but the wider diversity (height, age, educational background, etc.) of their potential matches dropped the number even further. People who look to meet potential partners online expect to benefit from the cornucopia of possibilities, but often end up just plain confused. Swipe left enough and you may find yourself just shutting off the phone altogether.

It turns out that whether we’re talking about jam, grades, dating, or almost anything else in life, more choice may seem fantastic, but in fact it’s making it harder for you to thrive. Whether material goods or life decisions, when we set ourselves up to pick positively, our freedom to make decisions can lead to greater optimism, excitement, and happiness. Yet when we let choice overwhelm us, we’re likely to end up paralyzed and empty-handed. And when we do pull the trigger, it doesn’t always lead to a better result.

It’s what we don’t choose to do many times that presents a challenge. We go into FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) syndrome. The growth of social media has made us more aware of what we believe we are missing out on. It makes you start to second guess the choice you made. (Maybe I should have gone to that party? Why am I here with him when I could be with my friends? I’ll check my phone when she gets up to see what else is going happening.) We’re suddenly assessing our opportunity cost all the time. The pain you feel over what you did not choose is regret.

What you do in your free-time in college (and life), and whom you do it with, can have a real impact on your enjoyment level. The choices of classes you take could shapes your whole direction in life. That’s a lot of pressure, and it means that as liberating as it may seem, it can be overwhelming so it’s best to have a plan of action.

How can you make decisions like a champ?

Three Rules of Thumb for Making Decisions

  1. Set habits. Steve Jobs always wore a black turtleneck. Mark Zuckerburg? You guessed it – tshirt and grey hoodie. Having these habits helped them eliminate having to choose an outfit for the day. Less choice. Now you don’t have to wear the same everyday, but perhaps set a study or meditation time each day where you start to form a habit.

  2. Be systematic and practical. Try setting a budget or identify specific features that you’re going to need. For example if you need a new backpack, set limits for under $75 and blue, but it has to have a water bottle sleeve. Creating a filter like this will help you eliminate options immediately, so you aren’t spending time looking at all the backpacks not in your price range or in a color you might, but might not…but might (but might not) have considered.

  3. Make more irreversible decisions. This may seem odd when you first read it. While making decisions that can be easily reversed may seem rewarding, it can interfere with your enjoyment. Your new kicks may be awesome, but knowing that they can be returned for the next two weeks allows you to ponder what you didn’t buy rather than fully focusing on how dope the ones are that you did. Think about add/drop period when selecting college courses. While the first few weeks provide an important time to make sure you are going to love your schedule, there is a sweet sigh of relief when it is over because of the finality of your class list. It’s done and you can move on.

In college, however, practically everything is a choice. There is nobody there to tell you when (or where…or with whom) to sleep. You can develop early-onset arthritis in your fingers just from incessantly slamming the snooze button every morning. You can have tacos for breakfast if you feel like it. You can wear anything (or pretty much nothing) and decide whether to go to class or lounge around in bed all day studying the nuances of Netflix. During class (provided you attend), you can go to the restroom anytime you please—and if you don’t want to come back, guess what, you don’t have to.

Yet such an abundance of choice presents both opportunities and challenges. How you set yourself up to make decisions can mean the difference between an angst-packed four years on campus, or the four best years of your life.

Photo Credit: Daytripper University

You Might Also Enjoy Reading:

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About Daniel Lerner

Daniel Lerner  is a speaker, teacher, strengths-based performance coach, and an expert in positive and performance psychologies. In the classroom and in his talks, Lerner integrates storytelling, humor, and science, helping students and professionals apply his teachings into their lives with immediate benefit.
From Dan Lerner and Alan Schlechter, co-teachers of NYU’s most popular elective class, “Science of Happiness,” comes the book,U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life), a fun, comprehensive guide to surviving and thriving in college and beyond.

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