"The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz

The Paradox of Choice by Barry SchwartzI first heard about this book when the author was interviewed on the radio. What he said about the stress caused by the explosion of choice in our modern world really intrigued me. But The Paradox of Choice is not just about the problem of choice, it is also about how we choose, and how we feel about the choices we make.

The data is clear that those who try to choose the best possible option (“maximizers”) are less happy with their choice with those who take the first “good enough” option and move on (“satisficers”), even if the maximizer’s choice is objectively better. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that the maximizers compare their choices against an imaginary perfect choice, so naturally their actual choice doesn’t measure up. In other words, they have high and unrealistic expectations. They also spend more time looking at different options, each of which have positive attributes that are forfeited when the choice is finally made. This forfeiture feels like a loss and stimulates regrets, and the more options the maximizer looked at, the greater the sense of loss and regret.

Both the maximizer and satisficer experience adaptation, whereby the pleasure derived from a choice gradually diminishes, but the maximizer suffers more for it because their expectations of pleasure were much higher than the satisficer. Maximizers are also more affected by comparison with others, while satisficers are less concerned about the outcomes of other people’s choices. They don’t mind if their neighbour has a better car because they are happy with their own car.

Making choices can be so anxiety-producing that we have developed various ways to make these choices easier or avoid them altogether. One common one is to rely on other people’s evaluations such as those in Consumer Reports magazine. Another way to avoid choosing is to follow the advice of people you know, even though their experience is limited and may not reflect the average experience. We can also make what are called “second-order decisions,” or decisions about how we will make choices. There are four kinds of second-order decisions:

  • Rules, which simply prescribe choices in advance so that we don’t have to think about them (e.g. always wearing a seat belt in the car);
  • Presumptions, which are default choices we will make except in unusual circumstances (Schwartz likens this to the default settings in a word processor);
  • Standards, which we use to eliminate options that don’t meet our needs, thereby narrowing the range of choices; and
  • Routines, which mean we stick with what has worked before.

Other fascinating facts about choice are that when we are forced to explain our choices, we actually make different choices than we would otherwise. We tend to experience more regret when we are asked to analyze our choice than if we are distracted after making a choice. We are also more likely to buy something when given fewer options.

Schwartz recommends a combination of awareness and coping mechanisms to take the pain out of choosing. Choosing to satisfice is an obvious solution, but there are some other tricks to increase our satisfaction with our choices. One is to arbitrarily reduce the number of options we will look at. This will increase satisfaction even for maximizers. Another trick is to anticipate that your pleasure from a particular choice will diminish over time, and this will stop you from spending inordinate amounts of time and energy (and money) on the choice.

One issue that Schwartz touches but doesn’t go deeply into is individualism. Contrary to expectation, free societies that allow more and more individualism are experiencing more unhappiness, not less. Excessive choice is a big part of the problem, in Schwartz’s opinion. He also presents some conflicting information about control—some studies show that people do better when they have control over their lives, yet people who believe they have control over their lives engage in more self-blame (since there’s no one else to blame for a self-chosen life) resulting in more depression and suicide.

According to psychological studies, what makes people happy is close relationships, but choice and individualism make forming those relationships more difficult. Relationships necessarily impose constraints, and so they are antagonistic to the desire to be free. Also, now that we can choose to associate with anyone we wish, we face all the same problems that we face in consumer choice, and often end up not choosing, and having fewer close relationships.

I think there is a lot more to be explored here with the interplay of choice, individualism, control, and relationships. I suspect that it wouldn’t be very long before spirituality entered into the mix, which is perhaps why Schwartz didn’t go further with his analysis. He clearly wants to hold on to the ideals of choice and control, whereas the spiritual answer, from many wisdom traditions, is that giving up choice, control, expectations, and self-interest is the way to true happiness. As an ardent maximizer I am a long way from the spiritual ideal, but until I achieve that beatific state I will try to apply some of  Schwartz’s suggestions and quit agonizing over every choice.

Happily, my next read has already been decided for me by the Slaves of Golconda:The Virginian by Owen Wister. Posts are due April 30th, at which time discussion will ensue at MetaxuCafé. Realistically I don’t expect to be finished by then but I’ll enjoy reading everyone’s thoughts. Ella has already made some preliminary comments at Box of Books.


12 comments on “"The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz

  1. Ellen Weber says:

    I really like you emphasis and applications to choice here and was thinking how that choice can be influenced by effective leaders. For instance, leaders who encourage others to develop “interpersonal” intelligence would up the ante for great relationships in an entire circle. They are a bit rare and yet it seems to me that this kind of leadership could actually add to a group's bottom line as well. What do you think?

  2. Casey says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. I often giggle to myself when confronted with the “choice” of something like toothpaste in a grocery store aisle. Every so often, I'll see someone comparing unit prices and reading the back to figure out which toothpaste has precisely the best active ingredients, etc. Seems like there's something to be said for the difference between this kind of choice and, say, “real” choices like the one Styron made famous (_Sophie's Choice_).

  3. Sylvia says:

    Ellen, those are interesting quesitons. The book doesn't address leadership, but it does say that people are far more influenced by information delivered personally (especially anecdotes) than by other sources of information (print, internet, etc.).
    I don't know about the bottom line–this book is concerned about how people feel. Maximizers probably make better financial decisions, but ironically they don't enjoy their success as much as the satisficers enjoy their “good enough” success.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Really, why can't they just make one great cinnamon toothpaste and leave it at that?!? 😉

  5. Sylvia says:

    I mean fluoride-free, detergent-free cinnamon toothpast with tea tree oil that doesn't cost $8 a tube. (Another thing maximizers do is imagine perfect products that combine all the features they like and to which no actual product can come close…)

  6. Sylvia says:

    Oh, and with baking soda. I'm flexible about the mint, though.

  7. Sue says:

    Hi, Sylvia – I love to read and I love books, so I'm enjoying your blog. This book about choices sounds like a good one for me. My husband calls me The Optimizer, so you can guess which category of Schwartz's I fall into!

  8. Sylvia says:

    Hi Sue! Thanks for dropping by. “Optimizer” is probably a better word for it (not that “Maximizer” isn't good enough! 😉

  9. Julie says:

    Barry Schwartz was my Intro Psych professor in college!
    The Maximizers are my parents, to a T. They believe there is a perfect product out there, and if they could just do enough research they'd be able to find it. My husband and I are pure satisficers, and proud of it!

  10. Sylvia says:

    Good for you! My dad is like that too, I think. He'll drive across town to save ten cents on a can of beans.

  11. Wil Cone says:

    Sounds like a really interesting book. Apparently I'm a satisficer and my wife is a maximizer. She can't quite understand my “good enough” attitude and I can't quite understand her quest for the best attitude – seems like too much effort (but maybe I'm just lazy ;-).

  12. Sylvia says:

    So, Wil, if your wife married you does that mean you're the best? 😉

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