In Western society we are often taught that free will and the ability to choose among options are part and parcel with self-optimization and happiness. But, does this freedom to choose really make a difference in our happiness?
In the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from Cornell University and the University of Chicago reveal that there is frequently no difference between how happy people are as a result of making a choice themselves or having a choice made for them. They argue that our emotions are only swayed by the presence of choice when we feel personally responsible for the outcome.
“Being in control and responsible for our actions is definitely an appealing idea, but sometimes it can be just as good to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight,” write Simona Botti (Cornell University) and Ann L. McGill (University of Chicago).
For the study, the first to explore how choice relates to the perception of personal responsibility, Botti and McGill categorized items according to appeal (chocolate vs. nasty odors). They then juxtaposed these items in two types of groupings: one in which each option was quite different and another in which each item was similar.
They found that when all options were appealing and significantly different, subjects who got to choose were happier than those assigned an item. Similarly, when all options were unappealing and discernable, people were less satisfied with a foul smell they had chosen than they were with the same smell when it was assigned.
However, when differences among the items were difficult to discern – for example, several different blends of coffee as opposed to completely different drinks – those who got to choose and those who were denied choice had the same level of satisfaction with the outcome.
“The inability to effectively tease apart the options makes choosers feel less responsible, preventing them from either indulging in self-congratulation or suffering from self-blame, and resulting in no difference between choosers and non-choosers’ satisfactions,” explain the authors.