The Paradox of Choice

February 3rd, 2015

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz front cover

More choice initially liberates us, but quickly becomes burdensome, even paralyzing, as the number of alternatives increases. That's the overarching premise of Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz' 2004 The Paradox of Choice.

We can't stand in the way of progress. Schwartz covers many ways in which societal change over the years have impacted upon the choices we face and those we make.

Particularly fascinating were passages about how, as society over the years has granted its individual citizens more choice, the responsibility has shifted from those providing the options — stores, institutions, employers — to those making the decisions — us. For example, employers, in offering a wealth of choice of retirement plans, may be doing their employees a disservice, unwittingly or not:

The adding of options brings with it a subtle shift in the responsibility that employers feel toward their employees. When the employer is providing only a few routes to retirement security, it seems important to take responsibility for the quality of those routes. But when the employer takes the trouble to provide many routes, then it seems reasonable to think that by providing options, the employer has done his or her part. Choosing wisely among those options becomes the employee's responsibility.

Such growing individualization feels empowering at first, but because we tend to want to solve our problems ourselves, we only have ourselves to blame when we fail.

With increased affluence come more possibilities and choices to make, which may paradoxically lower our quality of life. As rare, fringy, or expensive things like cosmetic surgery, the choice to stay single, or whether to have kids become commonplace, they each become one more thing for us to worry about.

We live longer than ever and have a higher quality of life while we're alive, but with that comes increased anxiety, "fear of falling," because our baselines of satisfaction and expectation have been shifted. And even though we live longer, most of us complain about a lack of time.

According to Schwartz, the world of choice is inhabited by two basic types of people: the satisficer and the maximizer. When making decisions — and these can be purchasing decisions or whether to enter into a romantic relationship, accept a job offer, have kids, etc. — the satisficer will determine a few criteria which will have to be met for the decision to be made. The first alternative to meet these criteria will be the one selected.

The maximizer will decide thinking of all the alternatives, leaving no stone unturned in search of the best. This leaves the maximizer susceptible to all the adverse ramifications of an overabundance of choice, including savoring positive experiences less and taking longer to recover from bad ones, and second-guessing purchases after they make them, making an objectively better choice subjectively worse.

All this talk about the how the human mind functions never gets dry and heavy, even though a veritable smorgasbord of terms and concepts are introduced and examined throughout the book. Seemingly every single point is illustrated with anecdotes and practical real-world examples, and Schwartz keeps things breezy and fast-paced by providing the gist of the results of many referenced behavioral studies without lingering on statistics. He also often returns to ideas established in previous chapters, applying them in new ways or viewing them from a different perspective, without it becoming repetitive. This makes the intangible workings of the mind much easier to grasp, and the ability to convey complicated concepts in easily understandable language may be a result of Schwartz' long experience as a college professor.

A supremely enjoyable and informative work, and one that has made me think about how I think, so to speak. I highly recommend you pick it up.