Skip to main content

What Netflix Tells Us About Decision Paralysis

It's bad, and the only thing you can do is lower your expectations and press play.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: dekuwa/Flickr)

(Photo: dekuwa/Flickr)

This is how it goes: You crumple into the couch after the hard grind of a workday. You drive your hand into the cushions, retrieve the remote, and automatically bring up the Netflix menu. You scroll through, first Comedies, then Critically-Acclaimed Dramas, then British TV because everyone's talking about this Black Mirror thing. You select one, read the synopsis, and by then, it's lost your interest, and you move on. You look at the clock, do some calculations, realize the run-time of whatever you're about to play is greater than the amount of time remaining before you're set to go to bed. You turn off the TV, get up from the couch, and curse yourself for wasting the opportunity.

What just happened?

“The phenomenon you described is choice overload, or choice paralysis, or too-much-choice effect,” says Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist who studies how we make—or don't make—our choices. “If you give people more options to choose from, it takes them longer to make a choice, and that feels burdensome or frustrating.”

This is the Demon of Decision. It's waving at you from the other side of the frozen food cooler, riding in the passenger seat while you're in the Jack in the Box drive-thru, whispering in your ear to reconsider that swipe left, then to think twice about that swipe right. And because this ubiquitous and seductive demon exists, we're spending too much time deciding and not enough time doing.

(Netflix, in fact, has been battling it for nearly its entire existence. In 2006, it offered a $1 million reward for whoever came up with the best recommendation system, money they might as well have just tossed in the Pacific, if you ask some folks.)

Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote the most famous examination of this phenomenon with his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, but the concept far predates him. In 2000, Sheena Iyengar conducted a much-cited study looking at how the amount of jam samples in a grocery store affects sales. In short, the greater the variety, the fewer jams purchased. But even Iyengar's study is late in the game.

“There's an argument back from the early 20 century,” Scheibehenne says. “When catalog shopping became popular and people wondered whether the number of options in catalogs would lead to that effect.”

We don't have to stop there, either. Go all the way back to the 14th century, and the illustration of Buridan's ass. (Or, go back further, to 350 B.C.E. and Aristotle's On the Heavens, where he illustrates the same concept using a man instead of a donkey, rendering it too boring to cite by this author.) It goes like this (and, unfortunately, it's not nearly as salacious as it sounds): There's an ass, meaning a donkey, and it's mighty hungry and thirsty. But because someone's very cruel, it's been placed equidistant between a pail of water and a stack of hay. Now, the donkey would try to quench its desire for food or drink, with the choice between those depending on which is closer. But since they're equally spaced, the donkey is frozen. So it stands there, and sits, and ultimately dies. Poor donkey.

Of course, if this problem of decision paralysis confounded Aristole and his cohort, can it really be classified as caused by today's climate of too many choices? “The experience seems real,” Scheibehenne says. “The question is if it can be traced in the behavior that you observe.” In other words, while this is something we've seen in action, that we know exists on a gut level, we still have to put in the research work to see if having too many choices actually, negatively affects us. And if you look at the problem through the Darwinian lens of capitalism, the answer is probably not.

“It seems retailers increase rather than decrease the number of options they offer to customers, and that suggests that they do it because they sell more,” Scheibehenne says. “If a competitor would have a competitive advantage by reducing their assortment, then we would see that more often.”

This, then, is the great battle over the concept. Schwartz and company claim more choices generally equals more frustration and fewer sales. Scheibehenne contends more choices leads to increased satisfaction, which is reflected in stores continually adding more options rather than streamlining. If that's occurring, decision paralysis can't really exist, or else it'd affect sales and the market would act accordingly. But the problem with that mentality is, for starters, the present isn't on a level playing field with the past. The cost of getting a larger assortment of items into stores is significantly lower now than anytime in the past due, partially, to the lower cost of shipping. More items on the racks now vs. a century ago, then, isn't enough to tell the whole story.

Plus, it's not really addressing the concerns from the consumer's point-of-view. When it comes to decision paralysis, we're not entirely concerned about the money being spent, so much as the time we're committing after we do so. And as The Netflix Conundrum proves, the demon exists. It exists, not because the studies say it does, but because of the hours upon hours of wasted time spent scrolling through Netflix. How do we get it off our backs? One way is to simply lower standards.

“If you are someone who looks for 'the best' option out there, whatever category—the best Netflix movie, the best partner, the best job—then, of course, this makes your life harder,” Scheibehenne says. “There is good evidence that simple rules of thumbs are quite effective on a daily basis. Rather than doing something that maximizes that outcome, doing something you could describe as 'satisfying' or 'good enough' gets you pretty far. It gives you more capacity to think about more important things.”

Instead of being saddled with a difficult choice, then, first decide if that question's something you really want to be spending time on. If the question's whether or not you should marry someone, yeah, sure, go ahead, take a few extra minutes on that one. If you're standing in line at Panda Express contemplating with great trepidation whether you should get the brown rice, or the white, or chow mein, or some combination therein, maybe just pick the first one you see?

The great Louis CK coined the “70 Percent Rule for Decision-Making”:

[M]y rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over.

From there, just because the decision's been made, the approval percentage keeps creeping up and up. Scheibehenne backs this idea up. “Once people make that choice they seem to be reasonably satisfied with what they choose,” he says. “So the frustration with the choice and with the selection of the option does not seem to carry over with the satisfaction with the chosen option itself.”

For me, the trick is this: Take the ol' quarter out of your pocket and assign heads or tails. Flick it in the air, catch it, slap it across the back of your hand, and reveal what fate's determined. Now—and this is the most important part—when the big reveal comes, be conscious of your feeling when you see what the coin's decided. Did you want it to be heads? Are you sad it landed tails? There. Turns out, you've known your decision all this time after all. So sit back, relax, press play, and take comfort in the fact that if you're not watching the best thing on Netflix, at least you're watching something.