Fredkin’s Paradox

“Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.” – Albert Einstein

Fredkin’s Paradox states that the smaller the difference between two choices (making the decision less significant), the tougher the decision is to make; below is the associated framework


A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, yet might be true. “This statement is false” is an example of the liar paradox, a second paradox type. The statement cannot be true and false at the same time. A proverbial paradox can be the following statement “To be kind, you sometimes have to be cruel”. This third kind of paradox refers to a person that acts in contrary to his character.  The last refers to statements that conflict with common belief. Fredkin’s paradox best fits the last category.

Fredkin’s Paradox

Ever stood in the store deciding to have peanut butter with or without chunks for what seemed an eternity? Or have you taken more than an hour finding a flight that is just €10,- cheaper than the alternative? Then you have been exposed to the workings of the Fredkin’s paradox. The paradox states the following “… in a choice situation, as the options become more closely matched on utility, the decision becomes more difficult, but the consequences become less significant”. A decision between jam and peanut butter makes a bigger difference than adding nuts, but in most cases will take people only seconds to decide upon. When people have to decide between similar options, decision time may become longer instead of shorter.

The Curse of Choice

There are two related concepts that intertwine with Fredkin’s paradox, 1) too many options, and 2) cost of not deciding. In a chocolate store, there were more than 100 different kinds of chocolate on display, customers came from far away to see the shop, yet ended up buying only small amounts of chocolate. The shopkeeper could not figure out why people were not buying more chocolate and asked a psychologist to investigate. The psychologist soon found out that the customers were baffled by the number of choices and did not know whether to buy ‘orange dream cream’ or ‘fine peach white chocolate’. So he tried an experiment, setting up in the store a small part in which people could choose between (only) 5 different flavours. Although there was less to choose from (thus reducing the chance people could find their favourite chocolate), people now bought much more chocolate. This paradox can be explained partially by Fredkin’s paradox, and by the fact that people now had to process less information and were thus spending more time buying, and less time deciding.

Not deciding also brings along costs, costs that we might sometime forget to see. In his amusing book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes how a friend of him decided on buying a camera. He compared brands, he compared prices and eventually came to compare two almost identical models. He studied each detail and eventually picked the one best suited for his needs. Then Ariely asked him about how many photo opportunities he had missed in the last three months whilst he was comparing cameras? We do not get to see the answer, but it sure is more than the advantage of picking one nearly identical model over the other. Fredkin’s paradox not only scoops away time, but the indecision in the meantime also costs you.


  1. Comparing two cars on the account of one having a cup holder
  2. Fighting over which route to take when both differ in time by only 5 minutes
  3. Deciding between 50 types of Italian ice cream for the next 10 minutes

When to Use

What are we to do with this information you may ask. The takeaway message is to stop worrying about small decisions. Think about the impact the outcomes will have on your life and how insignificant the decision will be in the long run. Even when you are making a truly big decision (e.g. which job to take), do not get lost in details (about vacation days and other benefits), take most or your time to think about the things that make the largest impact (the work you will be doing). Next time you are in the supermarket think about the Fredkin’s paradox and challenge yourself to half the time you spend there.

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” – Oscar Wilde

More on Fredkin’s Paradox: – Video about Fredkin’s Paradox – io9 post on Fredkin’s Paradox’s_paradox – Wikipedia on Fredkin’s Paradox – XKCD on choosing a strategy