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.

15 responses to “The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz”

  1. Tintil

    I’m not sure that I’m either a maximizer or a satisficer. Does Mr Schwartz provide any other definitions of people who may fall somewhere in-between? I think there must be something which would fit me a little better…..

  2. Sassy J

    I like to think of myself as a sastisfier–make a decision and commit to it, enjoy whatever it is you’ve selected at the moment by not looking back. Works well with ice-cream, and with men. See–men are like milk (products). Of course you may have the opportunity to select again in the future–better informed about your tastes. Just start living people! Eat some ice cream and get your flirt on.

  3. Sassy J

    Sorry–I meant satisficer (who gets to invent words anyway?)–but I have been known to be a satisfier.

  4. Scott

    I, too, think I fall into the satisficer category. If I need something, I just look around and find what will do that job. Once I make the decision I don’t second guess myself, and I certainly don’t continue looking at other items that do the same thing.

    Of course lots of people tell me, ‘You could have gotten that cheaper,’ or ‘This is better than that.’ However, if it does the job, why do I care?

    I also think that women should be like milk, refreshing and go well with pancakes.

  5. Jen

    I think I’m a Satisficer with a twist. I merely want something that will satisfy my need, but my need also includes saving money because I’m broke. So I usually look for the cheapest thing that will get the job done.

  6. Jen

    Uhm.. men are like milk. After a few weeks, it’s best to throw them out because they start to smell.

  7. mike

    Hi, Becky. Have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s article on why there are hundreds of styles of mustard but still basically only one ketchup?

  8. Becky

    Thanks, Mike. I haven’t read that article but will check it out. I actually thought of Gladwell when writing this entry because his new book on decision-making just came out: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

    Blink is about the first two seconds of looking–the decisive glance that knows in an instant…Gladwell…campaigns for snap judgments and mind reading with a gift for translating research into splendid storytelling. …he persuades readers to think small and focus on the meaning of “thin slices” of behavior.

  9. Clair

    What are you called if you start to look for something, see all the choices, get bored and decide to skip it and get a beer instead?

  10. mike

    Yes, I got Blink over the weekend, and am already planning on going to his reading when he swings through town. 🙂

  11. IT Security Dude

    Self-help books. Snake oil for the new millennium. The Paradox of this particular Choice? There’s no better way to waste money!

    By the way, you might be maximizing by waiting for the paperback, but have you considered the cost-benefit of having to wait before empowering yourself to absorb Mr. Schwartz’s mystical wisdom? In addition, hardback books hold up better than paperbacks. Then again, they take up more room. So many choices. What do I do?

    PASS A MUH QUA DEE ! ! !

  12. Becky

    Actually, one thing I liked about The Paradox of Choice is that it’s not at all about anybody’s mystical wisdom. It’s common sense backed up with psychological studies.

    If you already have common sense, scoff all you want, but some people are slow learners and need the perspective.

    That being said, I’m skeptical of Malcolm Gladwell and his time slicing thing. That sounds like mystical wisdom. Maybe Mike will review Blink on his site and prove me wrong.

  13. Theresa

    the husband and I heard the author on NPR talking about maximizers and satisficers. I had one of those moments of clarity in which I realized that I indeed had unecessary stress from being a maximizer (I’ve had numerous Home Despot meltdowns to prove it). I haven’t even read the darn book and it has changed my shopping behavior. thanks for reminding me of the title.

  14. Beth

    I’ll have to read the Schwartz book–thanks. Have you read Juliet Schor’s Overworked American? She talks about some of these same issues & relates them to our declining leisure time. Highly recommended.

  15. EB

    I just read Blink today, and had already Paradox. The two books are definitely in a conversation with each other…in fact, they both cite the same jam study. Whereas Schwartz focuses on decision-making behaviors that are designed to lead to greater overall happiness, Gladwell is dealing more with making better decisions for the sake of better decisions. (He focuses more on some cases where being right matters more than being satisfied with the decision, which is one of the areas where I think Paradox comes up short. The case of of a cop deciding to shoot/not shoot is the extreme example.