The Paradox of Choice – quasi book summary and discussion

Barry Schwartz is an American psychologist, Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, and since 2016 has been visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His work focuses on the intersection of psychology and economics. He is also the author of the book “The Paradox of Choice” and he talks about the concepts from the book in this TED talk. In this post I wanted to outline some of the key points he makes, and connect them to a watch collector’s decision-making processes.

The basic idea

Imagine you’re at the supermarket, trying to buy some bread. As you look at the aisle you are confronted with the usual selection of brands – but it gets worse than deciding between brown and white bread; There are various grainy options, gluten free, seeded, blended, wholemeal … the list goes on. Almost paralysed, you stand in the aisle and have no idea which bread to pick. The number of choices leaves you overwhelmed.

Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard. 

Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice 

This phenomenon is known as the paradox of choice (often used interchangeably with “choice overload”) and as Schwartz explains, is a concern in the modern world. As part of the effort to maximise individual freedoms, people now face increasingly complex decisions around consumer goods and services like phone contracts, retirement plans and investment vehicles to name a few. In addition, people must navigate many societal options regarding their working lives, personal lives and spiritual lives.

The paradox of choice stipulates that while we might believe that being presented with multiple options actually makes it easier to choose one that we are happy with, and thus increases consumer satisfaction, having an abundance of options actually requires more effort to make a decision and can leave us feeling unsatisfied with our choice. Basically, as the number of choices increases, so does the difficulty of knowing which one is best for us. Instead of increasing our freedom to have what we want, the paradox of choice suggests that having too many choices actually limits our freedom.

So why is it called a ‘paradox’? One of the central tenets of western societies is freedom. This freedom is often associated with choice, with a belief that greater choice is equated to greater freedom. This logic is straightforward: instead of being forced to choose between one or two different options, people have the freedom to choose between an almost unlimited number of options. Businesses and corporations often also follow this ideology, believing that more choices will lead to greater customer utility1. Arguably, watch collectors face the same conundrums, hence the post!

Response to opposing views

While many studies have demonstrated that people are less satisfied with the decisions they make the more options are available, other studies have conflicting evidence. For example, the decoy effect suggests that we feel more strongly about an option when there are three options, compared to when there are only two options. The paradox of choice has been criticised for not having enough concrete and scientific evidence behind it and critics often offer up countering evidence, such as the fact that Starbucks, which boasts a menu with hundreds of possibilities and customisations, is an incredibly popular and profitable company.2 Another phenomenon that counters the paradox of choice is single-option aversion, identified by Daniel Mochon. Single-option aversion suggests that people are unwilling to choose an attractive option if there are no alternative options since they have nothing to compare it against.2

Schwartz acknowledges that these controversial findings are likely apparent. He suggests that if all the studies based on the ways that options impact choice were compiled, we would likely find that they average out; Sometimes having more options will lead to increased satisfaction, and sometimes it will lead to diminished satisfaction. However, instead of this opposing evidence suggesting that we don’t need to concern ourselves over the impact of choice, Schwartz suggests it is about finding the right balance between having too many options and not enough options. He doesn’t think the studies that offer results different to what is expected by the paradox of choice undermine the effect’s credibility; instead, research needs to become more nuanced to find the magic number that can optimise people’s happiness.3

Key points from the book

  • Selecting among many options is cognitively and psychologically taxing. Become a “chooser,” not a “picker.” A chooser takes a broader perspective on decisions based on personal short- and long-term priorities. Choosers can discern that none of their available options may be right and that they may have to create better choices for themselves. By contrast, pickers select quickly and then hope they choose wisely. To become a chooser, evaluate which decisions are important and which you can make using your established, predetermined guidelines. Reduce the amount of time and energy you spend on unimportant choices to redirect your best efforts toward decisions that matter.
  • Being content with good enough is more satisfying than seeking perfection. Be a “satisficer,” not a “maximiser.” People who are satisfied only with the best outcome are maximisers. As options increase, the task of evaluating alternatives becomes increasingly onerous and often impossible. When maximisers finally choose, they often experience regret with a high-quality selection because they fear they have missed an even better option. The satisficer, on the other hand, has specific criteria, and selects the most suitable option without hesitation and moves on. They expend less time, energy and psychological effort to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Satisficers therefore tend to enjoy positive outcomes more than maximisers do, and cope much better with negative outcomes.
  • Facing too many options can overwhelm. Embrace constructive constraints. Choice has an “instrumental” value in getting you what you want or need, but it also has an “expressive” value in giving you a way of defining your priorities and yourself as a person. The ability to make an expressive choice also has psychological benefits, just as feelings of helplessness or loss of control are profoundly distressing. Yet, the proliferation of choice hasn’t led to perceptions of increased control and self-determination. In fact, having too many options makes people feel even less control. With so many choices, how confident can you be, that you’ll choose wisely?
  • Agonising over excess possibilities often leads to bad decisions. Dwelling on opportunity costs itself imposes an opportunity cost. Every decision among all viable options involves trade-offs; weighing those trade-offs affects how satisfactory a choice feels. Making any choice means that other choices are no longer available. Standard economic theory says that the only choice that should count in assessing opportunity cost is the next-best choice that you forgo, but most people don’t think of it that way. The more options you have that seem viable and appealing, the greater will be the perceived opportunity cost – even if only one choice at a time is possible. Wrestling with opportunity costs makes people unhappy, and unhappy people make worse decisions.
  • Make your important decisions final. Choices that you can’t revisit are more satisfying. People who make choices knowing they can change their minds feel less satisfaction with their decisions than those without that option. The ability to revisit a decision makes it more likely that you will change your mind and become less content. Additionally, when a decision is irreversible, the chooser does more psychological work to justify the choice.
  • Temper your expectations. To avoid discontentment, don’t compare yourself with others. Social comparison affects how you judge the success of your decisions. Social comparison is harder to control alone, since the modern environment constantly provides social feedback. Try to adjust how much attention you pay to having status. The more options a choice entails, the more likely a person is to look at how other people choose. Maximisers are more concerned about social comparisons than satisficers, who internalize their own standards and worry less about what others consider good enough.
  • Whatever you decide, anticipate that you’ll adapt to the new normal. Spend less effort choosing, and be grateful for what you have. People adapt to the conditions that are common in their environment. With hedonic adaptation, pleasure turns into comfort, which you experience as a letdown. The perpetual chase after novel pleasures, which inexorably become mundane, puts you on the hedonic treadmill (think about your yearning for a new watch alert!). People consistently overestimate how good a positive experience will make them feel or how bad a negative experience will be. Since almost every choice involves a prediction of how you’ll feel, the phenomenon of adaptation means that the more effort you put into a choice, the greater the disappointment you may feel when the adaptation kicks in. Anticipating adaptation mitigates disappointment and regret. It makes a “satisficing” strategy more appealing, since most choices result in a normalised emotional outcome anyway. Adopt an “attitude of gratitude” to moderate the normalisation effect of adaptation. The more you practice gratitude, the easier it becomes to be grateful – and the more optimistic, healthy and proactive you’ll be.

So what, as a watch collector?

Arguably nothing new is being covered here, since I have discussed a lot of these topics at length in previous posts – however, a few key things stand out to me. The first, is the final point in the previous list; practicing gratitude actually does help, and is a recommended defence against unwarranted regret. Second, is the key traits of a “satisficer” described above: they stick to specific criteria when evaluating options, and they try and limit the number of available options. I previously wrote this post about how to filter your own wish list of watches, and this seems to fit quite well with the advice here for narrowing down your options. Finally, remain aware of how much external validation you are seeking, and the extent to which you are comparing yourself with others – this is a recipe for regret, and one would be wise to nip this tendency in the bud before it becomes a habit.

-F

References

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