The Banquet of Healthy Choices

Choice is perhaps more interesting than most of us think. Much of our health is the result of the cumulative choices we make – from what we eat to how we work to the people with whom we associate. And when presented with a particular health condition, we want choices in our treatment.

But how much choice do we need? Is having more things to choose from better than fewer?

Our initial intuition is that having more choice is better than fewer. But maybe we need to pay closer attention to choice: from how we make the choices we make to the very nature of what choice means.

Barry Schwartz has addressed what he calls the Paradox of Choice. You can choose to click over and watch his video or skip it (you don’t need it to finish the rest of this post).

I’m not sure the quantity of choices we have is necessarily related to the quality of our choices.


To illustrate, here’s a little thought experiment, I’ll call it The Banquet of Healthy Choices:

Imagine two banquet tables placed by each other. One table has two dishes – they are both completely different but outrageously delicious. The other table has 100 dishes – all different and outrageously delicious. You have to choose which table from which to select a dish. Once you’ve picked a table then you have to select a dish and you must eat that dish.

Which table would you choose? Would you choose from only two dishes, or expand the number of choices to 100?

100 choices seems better, right? At least to most people.

But, here’s a little curveball to the experiment:

On the table with two dishes, one is laced with arsenic. On the table with 100 dishes, 99 dishes are laced with arsenic.

Had you known this last bit of information, which table do you think would have been the “better” choice? What we know now is that if  you chose the table with two dishes, you would have a 50% chance of surviving, while if you chose the table with 100 dishes, your survival rate would only be 1%.

That is, choosing the table with fewer choices offers a survival rate 50 times greater than the other table.

So our initial instinctive choice – especially in light of limited information – would have us choosing a course where the power of our choice only would give us a 1% survival rate. Imagine the anxiety you’d have if you made that choice.

Clearly, the quality (let alone the expected outcome) is not necessarily directly related to the number of choices. In fact, higher numbers of things to choose from can create more anxiety – anxiety which may negatively affect your very ability make a reasoned choice.


As more people head online for more information and connection in the context of their healthcare, the matter of choice will become increasingly critical. Why? Because the Internet is fast becoming like a Banquet of Healthy Choices.

But not all the choices are actually healthy – the internet is like a banquet table of almost an infinite number of choices: from the millions of search results in Google to who to follow on Twitter. That is, not only is there just raw content, we now have social elements in online information, such as curation.

Just as there are products in grocery stores labeled “healthy” but really aren’t, the Internet too offers a lot of “healthy choices”.

And when you factor in the importance of information and experience, knowing how to choose (and why we choose) becomes an art and a science in itself.

Choice is not only at the heart of prevention, it may be the very circulatory system of the body we call Health Care.

For healthcare communicators, understanding the psychology of choice is perhaps one of the most valuable assets to have.

For doctors and nurses and other healthcare professionals, knowing how to balance the needs of human beings for freedom of choice with the more subtle nature of choosing can only bring about better care.


I encourage you to think about Choice. It’s not only a good thing to do in your personal and professional life, but it has much to do with the kind of healthcare we seek and receive.

A good place to start is a book I recently stumbled upon: The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar (@Sheena_Iyengar).

Choice – regardless of the amount of information we have – inherently always carries an element of uncertainty. And we usually don’t like uncertainty.

Beyond our freedom to choose lies another freedom: the gracious capacity to live with mystery.

@PhilBaumann –  @HealthIsSocial

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