Take four classes, a work-study job and a couple of extracurricular activities. Throw in an intramural sports team, that event you promised your friend you’d check out and the movie that you’re dying to see. Feeling overwhelmed yet?
That’s the problem facing 8,000-plus Northwestern students, and no matter what they prioritize, there’s an overcommitment issue here. The selection of clubs, sports, organizations, publications and performance groups, not to mention time spent in the classroom, creates a certain pressure to be involved — too involved, in some cases.
Northwestern psychology professor Ben Gorvine says “choice overload” can help explain overcommitment among college students. The term is typically used in behavioral economics to explain actions of consumers, but Gorvine says it also applies to students with a slate of extracurricular options.
“There is research now showing that lots of choice is not in and of itself a good thing,” Gorvine says. “It’s something that’s kind of paradoxical to what we usually think. The more choices and options you have, the greater the potential to just be overwhelmed by it all.”
When faced with choice overload, consumers — or, in this case, students—often make decisions without adequately researching the available options.
Kelci Lynn Lucier, an education consultant and author of College Stress Solutions, says while students have good intentions, committing to so many activities can have the opposite effect of what was intended.
“People want to be involved and seen as friendly and committed and reliable and outgoing,” Lucier says. “But if you overcommit yourself, you end up perceived as unreliable and flaky and someone who doesn’t follow through.”
Why, then, does everyone continue to do it?
“There’s a certain culture in college,” Lucier says. “Sometimes with stress, it can get a little contagious. It’s rare to find students just keeping by themselves; there’s an external factor.”
That could explain why the emotional and mental health of college students as a whole has taken a hit. “The American Freshman National Norms,” an annual education study conducted by UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program, reported in Fall 2012 that students’ perception of their emotional health was lower than it had been in 27 years — that is, fewer students than ever rated their emotional health as “above average.” That number has been in freefall since the late ‘90s, only to level out at just over 50 percent during the past few years.
But Gorvine speculates that our improved knowledge and awareness of the fields of mental and emotional health has played a role in the drop-off.
“This might be a reflection of a greater societal cultural understanding of mental health,” Gorvine says, mentioning that he sometimes debates this very issue in his psychopathology class.
“If you look at psychiatric diagnoses, they’re up from 50 years ago across a variety of areas. The question is, are there more of these now because we’re falling apart as a society, or is it just that people are better educated about these things and they’re getting identified?”
Whatever the case, Lucier believes the solution is clear.
“It’s really important to say no. That seems so simple, but it’s really complicated,” Lucier says. “Feeling comfortable saying no is okay. Really take the time to take care of yourself. It’s important.”