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The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz


Rating: (Recommended)


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In his new book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explores the reasons why the proliferation of choices in our lives doesn’t make us feel any better. Counter-intuitive as that may be, after a few dozen page, it’s easy to understand the paradox, but harder to discover how to deal with it. Part of Schwartz’ advice is to avoid being a maximizer, one who seeks the best choice, but become more often a satisficer, one who chooses something that’s “good enough” and moves on. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 11, “What to Do About Choice,” (pp. 221-226):

The news I’ve reported is not good. Here we are, living at the pinnacle of human possibility, awash in material abundance. As a society, we have achieved what our ancestors could, at most, only dream about, but it has come at a great price. We get what we say we want, only to discover that what we want doesn’t satisfy us to the degree that we expect. We are surrounded by modern, time-saving devices, but we never seem to have enough time. We are free to be the authors of our own lives, but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to “write.”


The “success” of modernity turns out to be bittersweet, and everywhere we look it appears that a significant contributing factor is the overabundance of choice. Having too many choices produces psychological distress, especially when combined with regret, concern about status, adaptation, social comparison, and perhaps most important, the desire to have the best of everything—to maximize.


I believe there are steps we can take to mitigate—even eliminate—many of these sources of distress, but they aren’t easy. They require practice, discipline, and perhaps a new way of thinking. On the other hand, each of these steps will bring its own rewards.


1.        Choose When to Choose


As we have seen, having the opportunity to choose is essential for well-being, but choice has negative features, and the negative features escalate as the number of choices increases. The benefits of having options are apparent with each particular decision we face, but the costs are subtle and cumulative. In other words, it isn’t this or that particular choice that creates the problem: it’s all the choices, taken together.


It isn’t easy to pass up opportunities to choose. The key thing to appreciate, though, is that what is most important to us, most of the time, is not the objective results of decisions, but the subjective results. If the ability to choose enables you to get a better car, house, job, vacation, or coffeemaker, but the process of choice makes you feel worse about what you’ve chosen, you really haven’t gained anything from the opportunity to choose. And much of the time, better objective results and worse subjective results are exactly what our overabundance of options provides.


To manage the problem of excessive choice, we must decide which choices in our lives really matter and focus our time and energy there, letting many other opportunities pass us by. But by restricting our options, we will be able to choose less and feel better.


Try the following:



1.        Review some recent decisions that you’ve made, both small and large (a clothing purchase, a new kitchen appliance, a vacation destination, a retirement pension allocation, a medical procedure, a job or relationship change).

2.        Itemize the steps, time, research, and anxiety that went into making those decisions.

3.        Remind yourself how it felt to do that work.

4.        Ask yourself how much your final decision benefited from that work.


This exercise may help you better appreciate the costs associated with the decisions you make, which may lead you to give up some decisions altogether or at least to establish rules of thumb for yourself about how many options to consider, or how much time and energy to invest in choosing. For example, you could make it a rule to visit no more than two stores when shopping for clothing or to consider no more than two locations when planning a vacation.


Restricting yourself in this way may seem both difficult and arbitrary, but actually, this is the kind of discipline we exercise in other aspects of life. You may have a rule of thumb never to have more than two glasses of wine at a sitting. The alcohol tastes good and it makes you feel good and the opportunity for another drink is right at your elbow, yet you stop. And for most people, it isn’t that hard to stop. Why?


One reason is that you get insistent instructions from society about the dangers of too much alcohol. A second reason is that you may have had the experience of drinking too much, and discovered that it isn’t pretty. There’s no guarantee that the third glass of wine will be the one that sends you over the edge, but why risk it? Unfortunately, there are no insistent instructions from society about shopping too much. Nor, perhaps, has it been obvious to you that choice overload gives you a hangover. Until now. But if you’ve been convinced by the arguments and the evidence in this book, you now know that choice has a downside, an awareness that should make it easier for you to adopt, and live with, a “two options is my limit” rule. It’s worth a try.



2. Be a Chooser, Not a Picker


Choosers are people who are able to reflect on what makes a decision important, on whether, perhaps, none of the options should be chosen, on whether a new option should be created, and on what a particular choice says about the chooser as an individual. It is choosers who create new opportunities for themselves and everyone else. But when faced with overwhelming choice, we are forced to become “pickers.” which is to say, relatively passive selectors from whatever is available. Being a chooser is better, but to have the time to choose more and pick less, we must be willing to rely on habits, customs, norms, and rules to make some decisions automatic.


Choosers have the time to modify their goals; pickers do not. Choosers have the time to avoid following the herd; pickers do not. Good decisions take time and attention, and the only way we can find the needed time and attention is by choosing our spots.


As you go through the exercise of reviewing recent choices you’ve made, not only will you become more aware of associated costs, you’ll discover that there are some things you really care about, and others you don’t. This will allow you to



1         Shorten or eliminate deliberations about decisions that are unimportant to you;


2.        Use some of the time you’ve freed up to ask yourself what you really want in the areas of your life where decisions matter;


3.        And if you discover that none of the options the world presents in those areas meet your needs, start thinking about creating better options that do.

3.        Satisfice More and Maximize Less


It is maximers who suffer most in a culture that provides too many choices. It is maximizers who have expectations that can’t be met. It is maximizers who worry most about regret, about missed opportunities, and about social comparisons, and it is maximizers who are most disappointed when the results of decisions are not as good as they expected.


Learning to accept “good enough” will simplify decision making and increase satisfaction. Though satisficers may often do less well than maximizers according to certain objective standards, nonetheless, by settling for “good enough” even when the “best” could be just around the corner, satisficers will usually feel better about the decisions they make.


Admittedly, there are often times when it is difficult to embrace good enough.” Seeing that you could have done better may be irritating. In addition, there is a world of marketers out there trying to convince you that “good enough” isn’t good enough when “new and improved” is available. Nonetheless, everybody satisfices in at least some areas of life, because even for the most fastidious, it’s impossible to be a maximizer about everything. The trick is to learn to embrace and appreciate satisficing, to cultivate it in more and more aspects of life, rather than merely being resigned to it. Becoming a conscious, intentional satisficer makes comparison with how other people are doing less important. It makes regret less likely. In the complex, choice-saturated world we live in, it makes peace of mind possible.


To become a satisficer, however, requires that you think carefully about your goals and aspirations, and that you develop well-defined standards for what is “good enough” whenever you face a decision. Knowing what’s good enough requires knowing yourself and what you care about. So:



1.        Think about occasions in life when you settle, comfortably, for “good enough”:


2.        Scrutinize how you choose in those areas:


3.        Then apply that strategy more broadly.



I remember quite vividly going through this process myself several years ago when competitive long-distance phone services first became available. Because I make a fairly large number of long-distance phone calls and because I was being deluged with unsolicited advertisements from various companies, I found it hard to resist the temptation to try to find the absolute best company and plan for my calling habits. Making the various needed comparisons was difficult, time-consuming, and confusing, because different companies organized their services and charges in different ways. Furthermore, as I worked on the problem, new companies and new plans kept on coming. I knew I didn’t want to spend all this time solving my telephone problem, but it was like an itch that I couldn’t resist scratching. Then, one day I went out to replace a toaster. One store, two brands, two models, done. As I walked home, it occurred to me that I could, if I wanted to, pick my long-distance service in the same way. I breathed a sigh of relief, I did it, and I haven’t thought about it since.

There are more recommendations in The Paradox of Choice, as well as an interesting exploration of when enough choices become too many, and how we respond.

Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the March 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Paradox of Choice.htm


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