In writing The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz draws on his experience as a psychologist to state that freedom of choice brings positive results up to a point. However, too many choices bring diminishing returns. The book ends with practical suggestions about enjoying pleasantness of life rather than constantly chasing around for more.
Comments on The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
Readers may find that this book is one that must be read closely, as it presents ideas which may not have been considered previously. It also illuminates some seemingly contradictory human behaviors like why a high standard of living could coexist with increasing depression. Perhaps the chooser’s focus is clouded when the number of choices and features becomes excessive. The anticipated pleasure to be found at the end of the choice may be used up in the decision-making process.
Although there is considerable in the way of terminology, studies, and explanations to wade through, readers may experience a recognition reflex as much of the material rings true at an intuitive level. Readers are exposed to a wide variety of interesting studies with fascinating results. True to the ideas expressed within, one can become overwhelmed by the examples and minutia. However, if read and digested slowly, most will find it remarkably interesting and even hopeful.
Making Wise Choices When Given Excessive Data
Schwartz speaks of the difficulty of making wise choices. It shows how people set themselves up for disappointment by inaccurate prediction of what is wanted. The confusion is compounded by the average American’s exposure to around 3,000 ads per day.
People often choose on the basis of familiarity, not quality. They confront problems with predicting, gathering information, and evaluating it, not always to their benefit. This book sheds light on why talented college students who seemingly “have it all” can be overwhelmed with too much data in making decisions about their future.
How and Why Excessive Choice Can Make People Suffer
Schwartz specifies two groups called maximizers and satisficers, to explain how subjective evaluation of an experience affects objective information about the experience. He highlights the importance of when and where to be a chooser, and when and where to whistle and move on. Negative moods constrict the thinking process whereas good moods enhance one’s cognitive approach to the task at hand.
Maximizers suffer since they feel the need to collect all possible information, thus never being quite happy with a decision since they know there’s more information out there somewhere. The very excess of freedom can be debilitating to a maximizer.
Becoming a satisficer involves letting go of expecting to always attain “the best” thus not having to check out each and every possibility before making a decision. Such people accept “good enough” and don’t agonize over their decisions once they’re made.
He also raised the question about the possibility of so many choices turning satisficers into maximizers. Although consumer culture has very few constraints, he argues oppression can occur at either end of the freedom spectrum; that is, too many choices or too few choices can bring similar unhappy results.
How More Choices Don’t Make More Happiness
Autonomy is discussed as a value critical to the moral and legal practices in Western culture. Learned helplessness deters one’s motivation to try, even suppressing a body’s immune system, at times leading to depression.
Perhaps Schwartz is saying as one’s array of choices broadens, expectations grow. Like the carrot urging the horse around a track, a person never feels satisfaction in achieving a goal. Or it could be that choices overwhelm to the point of losing a feeling of control.
Having to make trade-offs, where each option has positive and negative consequences, increases anxiety. More available choices seem to cause a conflict in decision-making, and can even stymie the process.
Steps to Take to Deal With This Paradox of Choice
The task is to balance freedom of choice with loyalty and commitment. There is an ever changing tug of war between freedom and constraint. Going by self-imposed rules, standards, and routines can reduce the level of decision-making stress involved in daily living.
Schwartz suggests people could relax their expectations, keep choices within limits, let go of regret and rethinking, and embrace gratitude. While refusing to succumb to social pressures, using self-made rules for when to choose and when to accept “good-enough” connectedness may provide an alternate habit.
The Paradox of Choice maintains that constant decisions have invaded every aspect of life. Making wise choices among excessive options can make people suffer. The book clarifies why and how more choices don’t bring more happiness and gives steps to take to steer one’s life away from excess choice into valuing more pleasant living.
- Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.