Understanding the Paradox of Choice

several different ways to order coffee

Based on our understanding of how the brain makes decisions, the very flexibility that makes the relatively new standard of Experience API (xAPI) so attractive may be shutting down learner engagement by making it too hard to choose from available options. Here’s what’s going on.

xAPI contributes to the explosion of choice.

Experience Application Programming Interface (xAPI) is a learning technology specification that allows the capture and tracking of a virtually unlimited variety of learning experiences by allowing different sources of content to talk to each other. With xAPI, learners are able to claim and track just about any formal or informal experience in the world, such as a reading a book, climbing a mountain, taking a formal course, volunteering in the community, or doing a stretch assignment at work.

The standard has been around for a few years and is widely considered the best option when purchasing a new LMS. Recently, the US Department of Defense named xAPI as their standard for learning technology, giving an additional boost to the rush to convert to xAPI. When learners and learning managers are presented with a virtually unlimited palate, the brain’s defenses make it hard to make a decision – and even harder to be happy about it later.

Your brain has two pathways for making decisions.

Relativity, by M. Escher

Relativity, by M. Escher

Famously described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, your brain has two different processes that help you make decisions based on past experience. The amygdala responds to threatening, frightening, or painful experiences and learns to avoid them, while the nucleus accumbens teaches you to move towards positive, safe, rewarding experiences by releasing the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Both methods of learning/deciding are always working at the same time, which is how we can end up with mixed feelings about our choices. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) can trigger a threat response and lead us to make a decision we later regret. Or, we can become so afraid of making the wrong decision that we just freeze and hope that no action is better than making a mistake. The clash of these two competing systems – reward and punishment – creates the negative effects of having too many choices.

An overwhelming number of options can be paralyzing.

In 2005, Psychologist Barry Schwartz delivered a TED talk on the paradox of choice. When presented with more choices, people tend to become more confused intimidated by the perceived consequences of making the wrong choice. In situations like this, the default response is to take no action at all. A Vanguard study illustrates the paralyzing effect of having too many options. When employers increased the number of investment options, employee participation in the company-sponsored retirement program went down.

Buyer’s remorse causes dissatisfaction with any choice we make.

Even if we make a choice, we end up being less satisfied with the choice we’ve made. We start wondering if we would have been happier with another of the many choices presented to us. We begin to imagine the opportunity cost of the options we didn’t select, which devalues our current option, relative to all the “roads not taken.”

Opportunity costs create higher expectations for every option.

Because we have to go through such a complex process as consumers, we develop high expectations. As we continue to compare our choice against the opportunity cost of other options, it becomes impossible to be pleasantly surprised. In the age of instant gratification and virtually unlimited choice, no product is going to exceed our expectations anymore; the best we can hope for is to see our very high expectations met. When expectations are met, we lose the experience of delight – a sad way to go through life and a deadly way to implement learning of any type.

Disappointment is seen your own damn fault.

With so many choices available, if you do become disappointed in your final selection, you will likely feel – and may be told – “you have only yourself to blame.” Feelings of disappointment become targeted inward, because we chose unwisely when clearly there were many better options. Over time, it becomes harder and harder to expose yourself to the pressure to choose wisely the first time, contributing to the paralysis of choice.


Misuse of xAPI can make all learning experiences equal.

xAPI allows the tracking of self-reported experiences, which sounds like a fabulous idea. But let’s look at what this means in practice. Unless careful internal standards are in place, anything reported by a learner is considered equal to any other learning experience. For example, I might report that I read the latest book on leadership while another person attends an intensive hands-on course at a local college. Both might satisfy the same requirement in their learning development plan, although the two experiences are significantly different.

Activity isn’t the same as results.

Another weakness in the way many organizations are implementing xAPI is falling prey to a common fallacy of confusing activity with results. It is challenging enough to measure the impact of formal learning, and informal learning is even more difficult to evaluate. In the face of this challenge, many organizations are simply defaulting to counting widgets – how many “experiences” are tracked – instead of doing the heavy lifting required to understand how much change in behavior is actually taking place as a result of those widgets.

xAPI is only a step along the journey, not the destination.

In conclusion, I’m not advocating that you dump your shiny new xAPI-compatible technology. The potential to provide truly learner centric training and education is exciting. I’m just reminding you that for every action there are consequences. Adopting the latest standard doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility to manage the risks; it just makes the stakes a little bit higher.