The Psychology of Choice 101: How do We do it?


Do you go left?

Or do you go right?

Do you read this post or click the back button?

It’s time to make a choice.

We are faced with choices almost every second of every day. Should you get the blue one or the red one? Should you do it now or wait?

Dr. Joel Hoomans of Roberts Wesleyan College suggests that an adult makes on average about 35,000 choices per day! I know what you’re thinking, “Did he just say 35,000 choices per day?” and yes I did.

It starts from the moment we get up to the moment we go to sleep.

  • Should you sleep an extra 15 minutes?
  • What should you eat?
  • Should you make something or buy fast food?
  • What should you wear today?
  • Do these pants go with this shirt? etc.

This is just the first few minutes of the day! If the math on that figure works out, it comes to an astounding 1 decision every 2 seconds. How can this be?

First of all, not all choices are significant or even conscious. i.e. Whether or not to scratch your arm, or look over in the direction of that faint noise. Most of these choices happen so fast we don’t even contemplate that a decision is being made.

What is a Choice?

If we are going to be making 35,000 of these a day, we should take a closer look at what a choice is.

Webster gives us this definition of choice, “act of choosing; the voluntary act of selecting or separating from two or more things that which is preferred; the determination of the mind in preferring one thing to another; election”

Choice is a selection from alternatives.

In a “perfect world” we are presented with options. We then weigh each option. We carefully examine the pros and cons of each option. Then we make a decision on which one best suits our needs. At the end of all this we make our choice.

Sometimes you don’t have all the information and your choice may be nothing more than a guess. Your choice may be affected by someone else’s argument.

Also, some choices never make it to the conscious part of your brain. And are then made by intuition or habit.

The Difference Between Choice and Decision

These two words are often interchangeable. They are very similar. But the subtle difference can make a huge impact on your mindset.

The Latin root of the word decision translates to “cut off”. By making a decision you are cutting off choices and/or courses of action.

Decisions can be made from a single choice or from multiple choices. Every choice you make is ultimately a decision. But every decision you make may not come from a lot of choices.

Choices are more empowering. Having choice means having freedom. A choice is the right, power, or opportunity to choose.

For me the impact this has on your subconscious is clear.

Decisions are more narrowed in their application. Whereas choice has the ability to bring about more freedom. We have all heard people tell us things like, “You have to make a decision.” and “You are free to choose.”

Again these differences are slight, but framing them correctly in your mind can have an effect on your train of thought.

I am not saying one is better than the other. I merely wish to make us aware of the potential changes in your mindset when approaching a choice or decision.

Businesswoman looking at sign of right vs wrong decision on highway.

What is Rational Choice Theory?

Rational choice theory states that individuals use rational calculations to make rational choices and achieve outcomes that are aligned with their own personal objectives. Ashley Crossman from ThoughtCo. points out that human behavior tends to weigh out the cost and benefits of any action before deciding what to do.

More or less this is the premise behind Rational Choice Theory.

Crossman goes on to explain that RCT theorists believe that, “individuals are motivated by their personal wants and goals and are driven by personal desires. Since it is not possible for individuals to attain all the various things that they want, they must make choices related to both their goals and the means for attaining those goals. Individuals must anticipate the outcomes of alternative courses of action and calculate which action will be best for them. In the end, rational individuals choose the course of action that is likely to give them the greatest satisfaction.”

Freedom of Choice or Illusion of Choice

Simply put freedom of choice is, “The right of individuals to determine their own actions.” (Wikipedia)

This is based on the assumption that we, as individuals, have free will. Meaning that we have the freedom to make our own choices unimpeded. However, the existence of free will is not a can of worms I “choose” to open here.

The choice between 2 equivalent options is known as Morton’s Fork. If you are forced to choose between 2 or more undesirable options that is known as a dilemma.

Some would say that the illusion of choice could come from something called Hobson’s Choice. This is more or less the “take it or leave it” scenario. You can choose to take what I give you or not.

William James, the father of modern psychology, states, ” When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.”


In the early 80’s Benjamin Libet performed a study with some interesting results, that further complicate the issue of choice being an illusion.

Steps to Making Good Decisions

Each of us would like to think we know exactly what we are doing. And exactly what we want. Some are closer than others, but the truth is, we aren’t as close as we lead ourselves to believe.

But we can get better at it.

Making good decisions is like most anything. We can get better with practice. Here are some steps to help you along this journey.

  1. Clear your mind – Meditation is very effective. Also “unplugging” get off the screen and away from the distractions of technology.
  2. Integrate Intuition and Logic – Good decisions come from a place that is balanced in emotion and reason.
  3. Think About the Future You – This involves contemplating future outcomes. How will you be affected in the long run. Give future you a reason to smile.
  4. Asking the Right questions – What do you really want? Do you know? Will this bring you closer to or farther from your goals? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? What does the risk/reward look like? Can I stay committed to this decision?
  5. Integrity – Someone once told me, “Integrity is when your words and your actions are in alignment.” Will your decision align with your core values?
  6. Follow Through – Perseverance and resilience are an important part of integrity. If you made a decision that was worth your thought and energy to decide, then give it the energy to see it through.

Do We Have Too Many Choices?

With all the evidence, testing, and speculation it’s easy to get confused. We even have to choose whether to agree or disagree with what a choice is. Or if we have choice or not.

It is my choice to believe that we have choice. Some may be limited, others may present far too many options to know if I made the right choice. But I believe we can make them. In some cases we must make them.

I enjoy and embrace the uncertainty that comes with choice. I feel privileged to be a being that is capable of such a thing. Even if it is an illusion.

What a beautiful illusion.

I hope you choose to leave a comment or share this post.

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