Brother Dan S got me Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less for Christmas–proof that someone actually looks at my Amazon wishlist.
The Paradox of Choice, which falls somewhere between a self-help book and a psychology 101 text, claims that the abundance of options available to middle-class Americans is harmful, a counter-intuitive idea in a culture that values opportunities and freedom of choice.
From the book jacket:
Choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.
Such a book could easily deteriorate into a gratuitous attack on the free market. Thankfully, Schwartz sticks to describing the negative effects of having too many choices and ends by providing tips for fighting these effects.
The chapter about missed opportunities resonated. A lot. Decision-making is hard because of our reluctance to consider the trade-offs between choices and our struggle with opportunity costs. Add the sheer volume of available alternatives, and decisions become even harder, resulting in this impasse (page 122-3):
[We] imagine alternatives that combine the attractive features of the ones that do exist. And to the extent that we engage our imaginations in this way, we will even less satisfied with the alternative that we end up choosing.
After making his case for the dangers of choice, Schwartz presents several antidotes. The most important point–one that he refers to throughout the book–is the difference between maximizers, who seek the best, and satisficers, their happier counterparts who are content with something “good enough.” This doesn’t mean that satisficers have low standards; they simply choose the first option that meets their criteria.
The Paradox of Choice is so clear and concise that I’m annoyed for not thinking of these ideas myself. Indeed, I was often nodding in recognition as Schwartz described the causes and effects of our ever-expanding array of options. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusion that self-imposed constraints lead to a happier life, the book provides a well-written and fascinating overview of decision-making psychology.
A final note for any maximizers who might be interested in buying this book: it’s available in paperback on January 18th, so hold out for a few days and get a better price.