Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less


I recently read an interesting book by psychologist Barry Schwartz titled The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.  His main argument is that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.  However, the implications of his theory potentially apply to many aspects of our lives, including marriages, careers, etc.

We live in a culture of unprecedented choice.  When friends have visited me from overseas, they are literally blown away by our Super Walmarts and similar retail outlets.  One would expect that having 120 different options for salad dressing would bring us increased pleasure, as we would never need to get bored with one particular option.  The goal of choice is to allow you to choose the option that satisfies your need. When presented with a choice, your expected behavior is to choose an option that surpasses your expectation, “to satisfice”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing.  However, your real behaviour is completely different. You subconsciously switch from satisfice mode into “maximize” mode, starting to look for “the best option” even though you are perfectly fine with a mediocre one (at least most people are -- a few of us are born maximizers). Given that on an average day we have to make hundreds of decisions with inadequate knowledge and limited time, “the freedom of choice” creates anxiety, which ultimately transforms into sense of helplessness.

A related effect is is that we immediately start to second guess any choice that we do make and become quickly dissatisfied. I have personally experienced this with almost every major purchase -- computer, car, television, etc.  I start thinking about all of the good features of the options that I didn't select.  Even worse, a new model of the same brand is always only months away. Schwartz finds that when people are faced with having to choose one option out of many desirable choices, they will begin to consider hypothetical trade-offs. Their options are evaluated in terms of missed opportunities instead of the opportunity's potential. Schwartz maintains that one of the downsides of making trade-offs is it alters how we feel about the decisions we face; afterwards, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from our decision. 

I have a theory that wealth makes people less happy precisely because it expands the available pool of choices.  Do I buy a BMW, a Mercedes, or a Porsche?  Do I go to Paris on my next vacation, or Rome, or Tahiti?  Most people would probably love to drive any of these cars or go to any of these destinations.  However, having too many options makes the decision process more difficult (and less enjoyable) and decreases satisfaction with whatever choice is made.

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