19. “The paradox of choice: Why more is less” by Barry Schwartz


Publisher: HarperPerennial, 2004
Page count: 267 pages

“The paradox of choice” is a non-fiction book about how the plethora of options available in modern societies may not only not make us happier human beings but may even decrease our satisfaction with life and the choices we make. This contradicts the commonly accepted economic theory that adding more options can only be a good thing because those already satisfied with existing options can simply ignore the additional choices on offer, while the rest are more likely to find the perfect option from the expanded selection. Instead, the author suggests that, paradoxically, people are less and less satisfied even as their freedom of choice keeps expanding.

Barry Schwartz then goes on to explore, in a systematic fashion, why this is the case, and what we can do in order to be happier with our choices. First, he illustrates when we choose, from the completely insignificant choices (“which of the 285 varieties of crackers do I want?”) to the truly important ones, such as health insurance and retirement packages. Interrestingly, he finds that people are far more likely to buy if they are faced with a small selection than a big one. More worryingly, employers adding more options to their health care or retirement packages do their employees a disfavour because far more people end up not choosing at all, which could lead to suboptimal savings decisions or even financial ruin in the most extreme cases.

Secondly, Schwartz elaborates on how people choose. He notes, for instance, that what we remember about past experiences is almost entirely limited to how they felt a) at the peak (best/worst) and b) when they ended. For this reason, memory does not necessarily reflect what logic dictates (e.g. a three-week vacation with one great week followed by two pretty good weeks should trump a great one-week vacation), and it is memory rather than logic that influences our future choices. Framing and context are equally important; a petrol station offering discounts to customers paying cash will be perceived far more positively than a station adding a surcharge (equalling the same cash amount) to customers paying by credit card, even if the effect to the customers is exactly the same. Last in this section, the author differentiates between maximisers (who keep looking for the best) and satisficers (who just look until they find an option that meets their set of standards, i.e. the “good enough” option). He postulates that satisficing is, ironically, the maximising strategy since maximisers are far more likely to regret their choices or to agonise over them since there is always the possibility that even better choices exist out there.

Thirdly, Barry Schwartz explores why choices make us suffer. He suggests that more choices do not necessaily equate to a greater sense of control and that, paradoxically, what seems to contribute most to happiness are commitments (such as marriage, family and friends) that bind us rather than liberate us. Likewise, self-imposing certain rules, standards or routines (e.g. deciding to remain faithful to your spouse) limits the decisions we take and thus frees up more time for the decisions that we won’t or can’t avoid. In contrast, the more alternatives exist, the greater the opportunity costs associated with selecting a given option and the greater the psychological cost of the trade-offs involved. This makes people indecisive and unhappy with their choices. Facing a pkethora of choices similarly increases the risk of regret if an option doesn’t live up to our hopes or expectations.

Finally, in response to the problems outlined above, the author concludes the book by suggesting some methods that may help us grapple with the paradox of choice: self-impose certain reatrictions on your freedom of choice, aim for the good enough rather than the best, lower your expectations, and stop comparing yourself to others.

As you have probably gleaned from the overly detailed review above, I found this book absolutely fascinating. While the author does make some suggestions on how to become happier with making choices, this is not, and is not intended to be, a self-help book (thank God!). Instead, it is an extremely structured, reasoned and thought-through review of available science in this field combined with a multitude of anecdotes and examples to make it readable and enjoyable. If you enjoyed it, I would further recommend “Nudge”, a book by Richard Thaler on the importance of default options.

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