I 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.