The Paradox of Choice

I just listened to an online lecture by Barry Schwartz, who is a professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. His talk was about how we have an overabundance of choices in this country, and how this actually makes us less happy.

There is an online transcript of a different interview of his that outlines some of this thoughts, and therefore gives a brief synopsis of his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.

I have a hard time swallowing Dr. Schwartz’s conclusions, because he came to the conclusion that to avoid the pitfalls of too much choice, you should resolve that “good enough is good enough”. This goes against a lot of what I believe in. Strive for something better, don’t settle. However, it does tie in a lot to my post on how we measure ourselves. Here is a quote I found particularly disturbing…

“People who are out to find the very best job (“maximizers”) feel worse than people who settle for good enough. We’ve tracked them through and after college. Maximizers did better financially – they found starting salaries that paid $7,000 more than satisficers’ starting salary. But by every other measure – depression, stress, anxiety, satisfaction with their job – maximizers felt worse.”

Now the positive side of this, is that, like most things in life, this is not a black and white issue. Having no choices is horrible, and having more than one choice is usually good. Its when we have an obscene amount of choices that it starts to detract from our happiness. This is because we get frozen by indecision, and because its hard to make the perfect choice, you will end up being more dissatisfied thinking of the possibilities you missed out on the other choices (opportunity costs) you will end up feeling less satisfied than if there had been only one choice to begin with.

“There is no excuse for anything less than perfection in a world in which the choices are essentially infinite. When we experience relative failure and we ask the ‘Whose fault is it?’ question, we come up with answer ‘the fault is ours.’ This is the causal link between the profusion of choices we now face and the increase in clinical depression.”

Dr. Schwartz sited some interesting examples with things like sampling at the grocery store. The more types of sample available, the more people were attracted to try one, but the less they were likely to buy. I personally have felt this when I tried to buy a digital camera a year ago. I was so bewildered by all the choices, I didn’t get a camera for over 2 years. (of course, I didn’t realize this was why I wasn’t getting a camera at the time… Back then I was just “waiting for x model to come out”)

Another interesting quote from Dr. Schwartz:

“The paradox of all this is what really makes people happy is close relations to other people. That is the single most important determinant of well being that anyone has identified in 40 years of research. Close relations constrain, they don’t liberate. What it means to be close to someone is that you are not free to make all these choices yourself, you have to consider the needs, interests, desires of the others. So you are limited by the fact that you care about other people and other people care about you.”

This is interesting to me, because I definitely agree that close relations are what makes us happy… but I never thought of the constraints as being a positive part of it. This makes me wonder why I might ever have a fear of commitment in a relationship. Maybe its because I’m used to having so many choices, its hard to see that a simpler set may be more enjoyable.

The problem I had with all of this, is that it at first seemed like a whining statement of the Have’s. If you imagine the world as split into the “Haves” and the “Have nots” then you can imagine the “Have nots” being the ones that don’t have enough choices. This seems logical. However, the Haves complaining that they have too many choices and that they are unhappy because of it seems like complaining. Kind of like complaining that you have too much money. (After all, money is opportunity, so this statement is actually quite similar.) It just doesn’t go over to well with the general public. It does, however give a strong argument for living a simpler life. It also could explain why more money doesn’t lead to happiness. The premise of Dr. Schwartz’s argument would tell people to satisfy their basic needs, and then concentrate on your relations. More is not always better. I think I’ve heard that before…


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