The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

Choice is a good thing, right?

Not necessarily, according to Barry Schwartz. In this book on “how the culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction”, Schwartz examines the psychology of decision-making and in particular how the super-abundance of choices can actually make it harder, not only to make decisions, but to be satisfied with the decisions that we do make. And let’s be clear that Schwartz doesn’t think that living in a culture where we are permitted no choices is a good thing—he strongly believes in the importance of choice, but argues that this is an area where it’s more than possible to have too much of a good thing.

How many times have you heard people exclaim in semi-bemused frustration—or exclaimed yourself—when trying to make a decision, “Too much choice!”? I know I’ve heard it and I’m sure I’ve said it. And in our comfortable Western culture, we could say this about a myriad of things from lipstick to car insurance policies to prospective universities. The amount of available choices, Schwartz argues, can not only make it harder to make decisions, which would seem the most obvious factor, but can also make us less satisfied with the decisions that we do make, as we are tempted to think about the options we passed by in order to settle on this particular shampoo or holiday or spouse. Schwartz has some fascinating information on how we actually make decisions (takeaway point—your decisions may well be less rational than you think they are) and how we deal with the decisions that we do make—and in both instances, the amount of decisions available can cause problems.

Schwartz makes clear that the increase in the amount of things one can choose from isn’t just things one can buy, although they may come to mind most quickly. We tend to have many more options in what jobs we choose (there was, after all, a time when the natural thing for a man to do was to follow his father’s footsteps in whatever job he had), whom we marry (Schwartz doesn’t mention internet dating but it’s a moot point here), and how we live our lives in general in a society that places much less restraint on the behaviour of the people within it than it once did (a helpful and interesting point, when you come to think about it).

One chapter that I particularly liked is entitled “Why Decisions Disappoint: the Problem of Adaptation”.  We all know what it’s like for the thrill of something new to wear off, whether it’s a new dress, a new phone, or a new job. Something that feels great to begin with just doesn’t feel great forever. We’ve got used to it, and that can be disappointing. We want to always feel as we did on our first day of driving around our new car, or in our first years of marriage. Life just doesn’t work that way, but Schwartz says that we’re poor at factoring this into our decision making.

Schwartz doesn’t appear to be a Christian, but he does have some helpful advice about how to deal with the plethora of choices we face and how to feel better about the ones that we do make.

Here are three particularly good takeaway points, each with a quote from the section where he expands on them:

“Think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs”.

“When making a decision, it’s usually a good idea to think about the alternatives we will pass up when choosing our most preferred option. Ignoring these ‘opportunity costs’ can lead us to overestimate how good the best option is. On the other hand, the more we think about opportunity costs, the less satisfaction we’ll derive from whatever we choose. So we should make an effort to limit how much we think about the attractive features of options we reject.”

“Make your decisions nonreversible”.

“I think the power of nonreversible decisions comes through most clearly when we think about our most important choices. A friend once told me how his minister had shocked the congregation with a sermon on marriage in which he said flatly that, yes, the grass is always greener. What he meant was that, inevitably, you will encounter people who are younger, better looking, funnier, smarter, or seemingly more understanding and empathetic than your wife or husband. But finding a life partner is not a matter of comparison shopping and ‘trading up’. The only way to find happiness and stability in the presence of seemingly attractive and tempting options is to say, ‘I’m simply not going there. I’ve made my decision about a life partner, so this person’s empathy or that person’s looks really have nothing to do with me. I’m not in the market—end of story’”

“Practice an ‘attitude of gratitude’”.

“We can vastly improve our subjective experience by consciously striving to be grateful more often for what is good about a choice or an experience, and to be disappointed less by what is bad about it.”

No, it’s not rocket science, but if it were the sort of thing we all did, there’d be no need to include it in a book!

The Paradox of Choice is both insightful and practical. If you want to understand more about how you make decisions, and learn how to make them better, you could do worse than to check it out. And if you can’t decide whether or not to read it, let me know and I can walk you through the decision-making process….

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