The Paradox of Choice

— Why More Is Less — 

Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff,” information, “opportunity,” and activity in the world these days? You’re not alone. And it’s not just your imagination. Products, information, and services have all grown exponentially in the last thirty years — the average supermarket carries 30,000+ items. While this may be a phenomenon affecting industrialized Western cultures (and primarily the United States), the ubiquitous nature of electronic communication and the Internet means that it will quickly overtake even the remotest of islands near you. Forewarned is forearmed. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz helps us understand — and gain a measure of control over — the mushrooming number of options available, the choices about them we have to make, and how that intersection affects our ability to cope.

Strange as it may seem, Schwartz began thinking about choice when he went to buy a new pair of jeans. Because, like many of us, he wears his jeans “until they’re falling apart,” it had been a long time between purchases. While Schwartz expected to simply state his waist and inseam measurements, what he faced was a mountain of decision. This time, he confronted choices of color, fit, leg style, button fly or zip, and on and on. Although the options were initially intriguing, it wasn’t long before the array became exhausting. Why, asks Schwartz, should buying a pair of jeans be a day-long project? That might be great for teenagers or ‘mature’ people wanting to expand their social lives by hanging out at the local shopping mall. But for many others, the panoply of choices has become a burden.

But wait! How can having more choices be a problem? As Schwartz notes: “Buying jeans is a trivial matter, but it suggests a much larger theme…, which is this: When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Schwartz describes this book by saying that it is “about the choices Americans face in almost all areas of life: education, career, friendship, sex, romance, parenting, religious observance. There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives…. Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to well-being…. On the other hand…, there is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction — even to clinical depression.”

Relying on the extensive research related to choice and decision-making, Schwartz provides a very readable and compelling argument for some counterintuitive premises:

  • We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
  • We would be better off seeking what was “good enough” instead of seeking the best. (Have you ever heard a parent say, “I want only the ‘good enough’ for my kids”?)
  • We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
  • We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible.
  • We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.

We have a hard time recognizing that the sheer volume of options can create problems for us. We blame our difficulties on high prices, crowded parking lots, insensitive salespeople, or items not in stock, when the problem is actually too many choices. The negative fallout has three components: decisions require more effort, mistakes are more likely, and the psychological consequences of mistakes are more severe.

Schwartz contends that “choosing wisely begins with developing a clear understanding of your goals. And the first choice you must make is between the goal of choosing the absolute best and the goal of choosing something that is good enough.” Those who seek and accept only the best are “maximizers,” while “satisficers” will “settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.” What may be difficult to grasp is that both groups have criteria and standards for their decisions — and that those criteria and standards might actually be the same. The difference is the level of anxiety that making the decision provokes in each, which affects the decider’s satisfaction with the decision.

While maximizers need the impossible-to-guarantee assurance that their every decision is the absolute best — and they, therefore, spend lots of time searching and comparing —  satisficers are more able to prioritize their decision-making. “When reality requires maximizers to compromise — to end a search and decide on something — apprehension about what might have been takes over.” Satisficers, on the other hand, don’t sweat the small stuff, as the saying goes. “To a maximizer, satisficers appear to be willing to settle for mediocrity, but that is not the case. A satisficer may be just as discriminating as a maximizer. The difference between the two types is that the satisficer is content with the merely excellent as opposed to the absolute best.”

Schwartz discusses the difference between deciding and choosing, the “if only” problem of regret, dealing with missed opportunities, the role of adaptation and disappointment, why everything suffers from comparison, and the connections among choice, disappointment, and depression. And he also provides an eleven-point list of what we can do to tame the beast of too many choices, including choosing when to choose, thinking about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs, and practicing an “attitude of gratitude.”

Watch Schwartz’s presentation on The Paradox of Choice at TEDGlobal. [19:37]


Author: Barry Schwartz
Published: New York: Ecco Press / HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. ©2004

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos