The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz

The Paradox of Choice
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.

John Allen Paulos: Who’s Counting?

A reader noticed that Once Upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories is currently in the pile of to-be-read-books and kindly sent the link to John Allen Paulos’ Who’s Counting column at Thanks, Dan!

There’s lots of good stuff in the archives. For example, concerning hidden codes in text:

If, to use an example I’ve written about elsewhere, you were to look for prophetic evidence of the Clinton sex scandals in the Constitution, you could look for ELSes that begin anywhere within the document, that have any number of skips between letters of the ELSes, that involve any words spelled backward, diagonally, or any which way. With so much leeway, it would not be too unlikely if you found some ELSes that spell out, say, M-O-N-I-C-A or P-A-U-L-A or G-E-N-N-I-F-E-R or K-A-T-H-L-E-E-N, or something similar–seemingly remarkable, yet utterly insignificant.

The moral of the story: if you look long enough and hard enough, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for. Moreover, if you don’t set up strict rules beforehand for searching the data, and if you throw away all of the boring nonresults, then the interesting sequences that pop up by chance do not mean what they seem to.

Kinda takes the fun out of Pi and The Da Vinci Code, though.

Secret family recipes: the new rules

It’s time to discuss family values and how they’ve disintegrated during the past fifty years. Take, for example, the matter of secret family recipes. There was a time when people respected secret family recipes and waited until marriage–a sacred institution that unites the culinary heritage of two families–to give them away.

But in these immoral times, anything goes. I know someone who shacked up with her significant other and gave his family her grandmother’s secret gingersnap recipe. Gave it away. Just like that, like it was nothing. The relationship eventually ended, and she’s probably roaming the streets even as I type this, handing out the gingersnap recipe to sketchy men.

Am I too old-fashioned? Is there a three date rule for secret family recipes? In an attempt to be more modern, I shall now reveal the S secret family recipe:

1. Cook a hotdog and slice it vertically.
2. Make some mashed potatoes and put them in the hotdog.

3. Melt a slice of American cheese on top of the potatoes.

To get the full effect, use instant mashed potatoes. Also, soy dogs can be substituted for regular hotdogs. And stop making faces; this recipe is better than it sounds, and your kids will love it.

One more thing: a hypothetical question. How long do you have to date someone before you get his secret chili recipe?

Just when you thought the inbox was clear…

Just when you thought the inbox was clear…

A.C. Newman

AC Newman Slow Wonder
Lately I’ve been getting into Slow Wonder, the first solo album from A.C. (Carl) Newman, leader of the New Pornographers.* There’s nothing too deep about Slow Wonder. Brad M, a reviewer on Metacritic, explains the hot chick theory (scroll down to the user reviews):

I get a giddy rush of excitement but it’s kind of like seeing a pretty girl. On a superficial level staring at this girl will satisfy my needs but on an emotional level I’m not really feeling anything deeply.

Despite his lack of connection to the album, Brad gives it an overall thumbs-up:

Regardless of this criticism, I still am a fan of this cd. It’s fanciful, imaginative power-pop and I’ll enjoy it while it lasts. But I just can’t see myself turning to this album during a time of emotional distress.

Of course you wouldn’t turn to A.C. Newman in times of emotional distress–that’s what Coldplay is for! Bring on the giddy rush of excitement, I say, and enjoy Slow Wonder until the magic is gone.

The Matador Records website has two mp3s from the album. When I first heard “Miracle Drug,” I knew I’d end up buying Slow Wonder sooner or later. “35 in the Shade” is also extremely catchy, and you can hear it here for a limited time only.

So long, summer

It was amazing, full of visitors, road trips, and explorations of Southern Vermont and Western Massachusetts.

Labor Day on Kelly Drive, Philadelphia

Labor Day on Kelly Drive, Philadelphia

Ricketts Glenn

Wow, Ricketts Glenn is gorgeous. A perfect outing for last weekend’s perfect weather. The leaves in Northern Pennsylvania were just starting to change, the park’s waterfalls were falling, despite the recent dry spell, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Actually, a lack of clouds isn’t always desireable, since nothing adds interest to your photos like some nice, puffy clouds. Thank goodness for the magic of digital technology:

Saturday night in Ocean City, NJ

Saturday night in Ocean City, NJ