Hansen Wendlandt's Reviews > The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
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Jul 26, 2011

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Read in February, 2011

Sitting around a campfire off a dirt road just a few miles from the Wal Mart corporate headquarters, 2 am in the summer time, two 18-year olds take a break from shooting fireworks aimlessly into Mill Dam Pond, to chew on the idea that an overabundance of options harms us. This was personal, because my mother would suffer something like vertigo every time we entered the brand-new SuperCenter temple to hyper-capitalistic choice-mongering. How embarrassing to prop up your mother because she can’t handle an array of laundry detergent boxes! Andy agreed, because his dad complained more and more about not finding anything to watch on television, ever since they ordered cable. Also, we figured that choice was a larger cultural issue. With more options comes more advertising, more corner-cutting, and less appreciation for the simple things of life, like the Bud Light we had smuggled from the state line. But our knockdown argument was this: the only possible reason we could both be single after our first year of college, was that large campuses gave women too many men from which to choose… Too many men, that they can’t find the good ones… Like the good ones who were shooting bottle rockets at each other for fun for the umpteenth time that summer…

Minus that pathetic justification for bachelorhood, we were onto something, what Barry Schwartz calls the “tyranny of choice”. No one would disagree that there is value to having options in life. It is certainly better to choose from six colors than one, better to have a dozen restaurants than two. But The Paradox of Choice is that, at some point, too many options actually cause us more effort and less satisfaction. For, it seems at least a more efficient process to choose from six colors than to pour over 6000, at least a faster dinner when we choose from twelve restaurants, rather than 1200. Further, according to Schwartz, in some cases overabundance of options can actually stunt us emotionally and lead to worse decision-making. He describes every angle of the problem through loads of sociological and psychological research, and offers helpful advice how to navigate this modern scourge. The writing may come off a bit redundant at times, but for the most part, the book is clear, fair, astute and interesting.

The Problem

The ‘tyranny of choice’ makes some intuitive sense, when we consider how much we might fret over less important decisions, like going to three stores for a certain ice cream flavor or consulting five websites to save one dollar on a flight. There are situations where we waste more time dithering, and should just enjoy our choice, any choice. How this plays out in healthcare, religion, relationships and other emotionally charged areas of life, can be more controversial—no matter how strong the case, who wants fewer medications or less access to the divine? But specific examples aside, Schwartz’ greater point is that “the cumulative effect of these added choices… is causing substantial distress” (44).

To argue for this he combs great studies about every layer of consumption, concluding that we are dramatically and inherently bad at determining what we want, deciding what might meet that goal, and evaluating our satisfaction with whatever we choose. The data is clear that the more options we have, the worse we are at each step of the decision-making process, and the less happy we are. In fact, the resulting disappointment, even depression, from our many tyrannized choices actually parallels a drop in cultural well being, at least in consumerist cultures like the US. Consider anecdotally, for instance, just how much more stuff we have, how much better it is, and how many more options we have than our parents or grandparents, while simultaneously harboring much more stress and less peace than they.

More than simply a correlation, Schwartz shows how overabundant choice causes some degree of this societal despair, because of our brains, our hearts and our contexts. Psychologically, he explains many studies that show how a “discrepancy between logic and memory suggest that we don’t always know what we want” (51). With respect to our values, he argues well that many of us are more enamored by autonomy in the process of decision-making, than any satisfaction that results from a decision. And sociologically, it is clear how the marketplace preys on us all, nurturing that social addiction to control, even while doing everything it can to determine our decisions. At the worst, we’re killing ourselves with choice. At the best, there might be ways to cultivate a less-is-more perspective, without abandoning culture outright.

Some solutions

Here is a condensed list of Schwartz’ advice for breaking the patterns of choice-despair:

1) Ease your burdens of decision-making by establishing some principles about what sorts of things deserve decisions. Some people might make little personal rules, such as ‘Never look at catalogs’ or ‘Only shop for 30 minutes’. Others might try more vaguely to resist opportunities that carry high levels of effort, chance of mistake, or potential for dissatisfaction.
2) Develop minimum levels of satisfaction, and appreciate the truly fine things only on occasion. When can ‘good enough’ be good enough? When is it important to spend the effort to get something ‘just right’?
3) Perhaps ironically, you can be more satisfied by sticking with your choice. Don’t be tempted away from satisfaction by silly innovations, and try not to consider reversing decisions.
4) Be realistic about your expectations and feelings of satisfaction. Few things come off perfectly, and fewer remain so after much time.
5) Be more grateful for what you have, and less regretful of what you don’t, especially in comparison with others.

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