Noon comes and it is time for your lunch break. Your co-workers want to eat outside as a group, so a decision needs to be made on which restaurant to go. As usual, this seemingly simple choice becomes difficult as the group cannot reach a consensus. No one wants to be assertive, and any suggestion that comes up is met by reasons why it is not a good idea.

After reaching a stalemate with no clear winners, an hour has already passed, signaling that lunch break is over. In the end, the group went back to work hungry.

This is an exaggerated story but it illustrates a common scenario that we encounter in life. In the pursuit of an optimal solution to a problem, we have trouble deciding which solution to take. This phenomenon is described by the philosopher Jean Buridan using a parable to explore the limits of rationality and free will.

Imagine a hungry donkey that is placed equidistant between two equally appealing bales of hay. The donkey is perfectly rational and desires both bales of hay equally. According to Buridan’s paradox, the donkey will be unable to make a decision and will starve to death due to indecision.

Buridan’s donkey

This parable seems comical in its simplicity. Who in their right mind would allow themselves to starve to death because of two equal choices? In reality though, it is not physical death that occurs when we are faced with this situation, but death of our peace of mind. We eventually find that indecision is more fatal than the wrong choice.

The Paradox of Choice

As technology and means of production continue to improve, the number of possible products that can be created also increases. The variety seem inexhaustible, with different shapes, colors, flavors, and features. Since all of us are different (or at least we think), the availability of more options mean that a wider range of preferences can now be catered to. And this in turn should result in increased happiness as we can get products that fit our own tastes.

This sounds excellent in theory. However, in reality, having more choices results not in an increase of happiness, but the opposite. One of the reasons is described in the parable of Buridan’s donkey: faced with a multitude of options that all seem equally good, we get paralyzed with indecision.

In an article by Barry Schwartz titled “The Tyranny of Choice“, he highlighted the main reasons why having more choices is not always a good thing.


After finally choosing one of the many options available to us, it feels like it wasn’t the end of the story. Lingering thoughts of the alternative continue to haunt us. This is commonly known as buyer’s remorse.

Should I have gone with option X?“, “In hindsight, Option Y seems like a better option than what I got“. These thoughts impede on us feeling satisfied with our decision, which ultimately leads to unhappiness.


It is well-known that humans have the ability to adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in. Studies have shown that people who were born blind and deaf can have an equal happy existence like another person who doesn’t have any disabilities.

Unfortunately this ability is a double-edged sword. When we experience happiness due to acquiring new things or experiences, eventually our emotions come back to a normal state. This is why material things do not satisfy us in the long term. We crave that initial excitement after acquiring something and so strive to get that feeling back. These result in phenomena such as the hedonic treadmill and “keeping up with the Joneses”.

This also applies to our choices. At first, we feel ecstatic about our decision, but as time goes on, the novelty wears off and we go back to an equilibrium/normal state. Once this happens, we start to think that we should have opted for the other option instead. By dwelling on this feeling, it results in our unhappiness.

Heightened Expectations

Related to the previous point, we also adapt to an environment where there are plenty of options to choose from. We expect that the “perfect fit” is ready and available out there. When we feel that there are not enough options to choose from, this results in disappointment.

This expectation also applies to the choice that we selected. We expect more from what we have right now as it is supposed to be the “best” option. If there are any negative attributes to our choice, however small, it causes us to wonder if the another option that we skipped is better than what we currently have.

Avoiding the trap

The situation seems bleak. If we are paralyzed by different options we succumb to become Buridan’s donkey. But if we do make a choice, this results in distress due to regret, adaptation, and expectations.

So how do we handle decision making then?

Your decisions can be changed

There are only a few things in life that are permanent decisions. Examples are: being a parent or taking your own life. For the vast majority of choices we need to make, they can be changed or reversed with varying degrees of cost.

Most of the time you can just make a small decision, then see where you end up. Small decisions are easier to change than big ones. Make adjustments in order to align your steps towards the goal. Rinse and repeat. In combat operations, this is also known as the OODA loop.

Accept that you will make mistakes

No one can see the future. If we can, then decision-making becomes effortless as we just choose the option that reflects the future. No matter how much we plan for contingencies and unforeseen circumstances, black swans are still possible. To counteract this, we make decisions that still allow us to maneuver.

Sailors do not set their sail in one direction and then expect to arrive at their destination. They know that the wind can be unpredictable regardless of the forecast. So they adjust to whatever direction the wind is and align their sail so they keep moving towards their goal.

Change is the only constant

You are not a constant: you change over time. This means that your preferences change as well. What may seem like the best thing that you have today will eventually lose its charm. If we and what we like changes, then why stress over a decision that may not even make sense to us in the future?

Photo by Letizia Bordoni on Unsplash

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