I recently spoke with a friend who was having difficulty making a major decision in his life. I suggested to him that he might be struggling because he is a talented fellow who might therefore have too many options.
After we concluded our conversation, I recalled reading a well-written book called the Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2004), by Barry Schwartz. This delightful book incorporates many findings of cognitive science and the psychology of decision-making. His main point is, indeed, paradoxical:
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 debilitated. It might even be said to tyrannize.
When Schwartz speaks of tyranny, he reminds us that we live in a society in which you can find paralyzing members of choices even at the supermarket. Why is it that we need 16 types of instant mashed potatoes, 75 types of instant gravies, 120 different types of pastas sauce 16 versions of Italian dressing, 275 types of serial and 64 formulas of barbecue sauce? We face similar numbers of choices when we choose retirement plans, medical care, careers, where to live and who to be.
Modern society has done this to us: it has transformed many choices into explicit and psychologically real choices. The average American sees 3000 advertisements each day, which equates to 30 advertisements per waking minute (page 53). We are covered with ads because advertisers realize that “familiarity breeds liking,” in other words “people will wait the familiar things more positively than the unfamiliar ones.”
Schwartz describes experiments where people are confounded when exposed to larger numbers of consumer items from which to choose, many of these people turning away rather than making any choice at all. We find it hard to ignore all of the choices to which we are exposed. In fact, they are impossible to ignore because once we become aware of them, they become our “standard of comparison.” When we see a person next to us using a smaller faster laptop computer with a brighter screen, my own perfectly adequate computer no longer seems adequate.
Schwartz argues that even though having some choices is good, this doesn’t necessarily mean that having more choices is better. He suggests that we need to maximize our freedom by “learning to make good choices about the things that matter “while avoiding the time drain of obsessing over choices that don’t matter. It follows that we should not be rebelling against all constraints on freedom of choice. We should also strive to make choices that are merely “good enough,” instead of seeking perfect or at least superior choices. Schwartz further advises that “we would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.”
As a Schwartz admits, these conclusions conflict with the conventional wisdom that we are always better off with more choices and that we should always strive for the highest of standards in our decision-making. The increased number of options in modern society has three unfortunate facts, per Schwartz
- It means that decisions require more effort.
- It makes mistakes more likely.
- It makes a psychological consequences of mistakes more severe
Many of us have been turned into “maximizers,” who need to be assured that every purchase or decision is the absolute best that could have been made. The healthier alternative to being a maximizer is to be a “satisficer,” to “settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.” As opposed to maximizers, satisficers search only until they find an item that meets their criteria and standards, at which point they stop. They are not concerned about the possibility that there are superior products or better bargains “just around the corner.”
Therefore, the Paradox of Choice is not just an academic presentation. It is a self-help manual. Schwartz assures us that “most of us have the capacity to be satisficers.” He includes tests for determining one’s tendencies as well as advice for breaking one’s maximizing habits.
The deep lesson of the Paradox of Choice is that more choices don’t necessarily mean more control.
There comes a point at which opportunities become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed. Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope. Having the opportunity to choose is no blessing if we feel we do not have the wherewithal to choose wisely.
Once again, the solution is to be selective in investing in our choice making. “The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.”