Ne quid nimis. [In all things moderation.]– Publius Terentius Afer (Terence), c. 171 b.c. (Bovie, 1992)
It is a common supposition in modern society that the more choices, the better – that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is infinite. From classic economic theories of free enterprise, to mundane marketing practices that provide customers with entire aisles devoted to potato chips or soft drinks, to important life decisions in which people contemplate alternative career options or multiple investment opportunities, this belief pervades our institutions, norms, and customs. Ice cream parlors compete to offer the most flavors; major fast-food chains urge us to “Have it our way.”
On the face of it, this supposition seems well supported by decades of psychological theory and research that has repeatedly demonstrated, across many domains, a link between the provision of choice and increases in intrinsic motivation, perceived control, task performance, and life satisfaction (Deci, 1975, 1981; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Glass & Singer, 1972a, 1972b; Langer & Rodin, 1976; Rotter, 1966; Schulz & Hanusa, 1978; Taylor, 1989; Taylor & Brown, 1988). In a typical laboratory study, the intrinsic motivation of participants is compared across two conditions: one in which participants are given a choice among half a dozen possible activities and a second in which participants are told by an experimenter which specific activity to undertake (Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin, Smith, & Deci, 1978).