A trade-off (or tradeoff) is a situational decision that involves diminishing or losing one quality, quantity, or property of a set or design in return for gains in other aspects. In simple terms, a tradeoff is where one thing increases, and another must decrease. Tradeoffs stem from limitations of many origins, including simple physics – for instance, only a certain volume of objects can fit into a given space, so a full container must remove some items in order to accept any more, and vessels can carry a few large items or multiple small items. Tradeoffs also commonly refer to different configurations of a single item, such as the tuning of strings on a guitar to enable different notes to be played, as well as an allocation of time and attention towards different tasks.
The concept of a tradeoff suggests a tactical or strategic choice made with full comprehension of the advantages and disadvantages of each setup. An economic example is the decision to invest in stocks, which are risky but carry great potential return, versus bonds, which are generally safer but with lower potential returns.
The term is also used widely in an evolutionary context, in which case the processes of natural selection and sexual selection are in reference as the ultimate decisive factors. In biology, the concepts of tradeoffs and constraints are often closely related. In economics, a trade-off is commonly expressed in terms of the opportunity cost of one potential choice, which is the loss of the best available alternative.
An opportunity cost example of trade-offs for an individual would be the decision by a full-time worker to take time off work with a salary of $50,000 to attend medical school with an annual tuition of $30,000 and earning $150,000 as a doctor after 7 years of study. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that the medical school only allows full-time study, then the individual considering stopping work would face a trade-off between not going to medical school and earning $50,000 at work, or going to medical school and losing $50,000 in salary and having to pay $30,000 in tuition but earning $150,000 or more per year after 7 years of study.