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Saturday, March 5th, 2005


The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

by Barry Schwartz

A review by Doug Brown

In the film Moscow on the Hudson, Robin Williams plays a Communist-era Russian defector in New York City. In a memorable scene, he goes to a supermarket for coffee; encountering an aisle full of different brands of coffee to choose from, he faints from the overload, mumbling the word "coffee" over and over. Barry Schwartz understands the feeling. Schwartz is not a "let's get back to the good old days when we had nothing and liked it" Luddite; he acknowledges the freedom to make choices is a vital part of the richness of our lives. The paradox is that the more options we have, the less satisfied we often are with the choices we make.

An example given near the beginning of The Paradox of Choice illustrates the issue. A store had a special where they put out several types of gourmet jam for customers to try, and if folks bought a jar they received a coupon for a dollar off. The special was run twice, once with six varieties of jam, and once with twenty-four. The latter case brought more customers to the table, though in both cases most folks sampled about the same number of jams. Here's the interesting part: in the instance with six jams, 30% of customers bought a jar, but on the occasion with twenty-four samples, only 3% of people bought a jar. Why? Schwartz suggests that when there were fewer choices, people felt confident they had sampled the range and knew which one they liked best. When there were more options, people were less likely to commit to a selection, because one of the others still untried might be better. Therein lies the paradox. Like Robin Williams's character in Moscow on the Hudson, people can become debilitated from having too many choices.

Schwartz splits people into maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers feel the need to try all possible options; they have to find the very best one. Satisficers are willing to try a few things and select that which is good enough. Studies suggest that maximizers are often less happy with their choices than satisficers, largely because maximizers are more emotionally invested in those choices. Maximizers spend much more time and energy making choices; instead of going to one store and trying a couple of items, they must go to all the stores and try all the items.

As you might have guessed, Schwartz suggests one way we can help improve our lives is to practice being satisficers. We can do this by willfully placing limits on ourselves, choosing to limit our options. Just as we can decide to limit ourselves to two drinks in an evening, try limiting yourself to only checking two stores the next time you have a decision to make (or two products, or two possible vacation destinations, or two possible restaurants, or two menu items, etc., etc.). Think about how important the decision really is to you before investing energy making it: do you really want to spend all day buying a pair of jeans? After making the decision, enjoy it for itself, without dwelling on the other things you could have bought, the other restaurants you could have eaten at, and so on. Accept that no matter how initially pleased you are with your choice, adaptation will occur and the glow will fade; rather than becoming regretful when you aren't deliriously happy with your new purchase any more, be ready for adaptation, and accept it as part of how our brains work.

Regret is the topic of an interesting chapter. In yet another paradox, people are usually more regretful the closer they come to glory. Silver medal winners are often more regretful than bronze medalists, because if only some little thing had changed or been done differently, they might have won the gold. Bronze medal winners are more likely to re-examine downward rather than upward; they are just grateful to have won a medal, because if one little thing had changed they could have not placed at all. Someone who misses a plane by five minutes will usually be more regretful than someone who missed it by half an hour, even though both people are still stuck at the airport. Schwartz suggests that we can be happier by reviewing downwards rather than upwards; concentrate more on how worse things could have been, rather than how much better. Maximizers tend to constantly imagine that maybe a better choice could have been made, which leads to more regret with their decisions. To counter this tendency, Schwartz suggests making a list of five things you are grateful for every day. Sure, it's corny, but if there's a tiny chance that getting yourself into that frame of mind might make you happier, why not?

To me, The Paradox of Choice is the best kind of self-help book: one that isn't a self-help book. It provides a wealth of information on how our minds work, and then suggests ways to work within that framework to improve our outlook. Schwartz writes in a light companionable voice, and avoids presenting himself as The Enlightened One handing down pearls from on high. He gives examples where he has fallen into all the traps discussed in the book, showing he is still struggling right along with us. If you've ever spent all day buying a simple item, if you tend to examine your choices regretfully, or you have other maximizer tendencies (and almost all of us do), The Paradox of Choice offers perspectives and functional tips for reducing stress and increasing contentment in a choice-filled world.

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