The Paradox of Choice

More choice is always better, right? Not according to Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. In his book, he argues that more choices actually make us less happy.

He begins by talking about buying a pair of jeans. He went into a shop and asked for some. The shop assistant asked him a lot of questions: what colour, what fit, what treatment, what distressing, and what type of fly did he want. His answer: “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” Not only did he now have to make a decision, which takes cognitive effort if you want to make the right decision, but the increased choice raises our expectations that we will get something better.

This is something I strongly identify with. When I need some new trainers I walk into a shoe shop and look at the choices. If you head down to Sports Direct in Leeds you will find literally a thousand shoes on the wall (I might be over-estimating, but not by much: it’s huge!). Does that make it easier to find the shoes I want? No! It makes it harder. Much harder. I spend time searching for the perfect shoe. If there were just six choices my life would be so much easier.

All of this choice might be okay if we made good decisions and were happier for it. But neither of these are true. Humans are terrible at making rational decisions and Schwartz summaries a lot of Thinking, Fast and Slow as well as other research to prove it. Anchoring is a big one, but there are many. Sunk cost fallacy is another big one: why continue to eat when you are uncomfortably full? I do that all of the time.

He goes on to say that people fear regret and try to avoid it. Therefore people often opt for reversal decisions: buying items you can return, booking things you can cancel for free, etc. However, the research shows that this makes us less happy because we continue to meditate on the choice after having made it. Whereas, if it is reversible we just get on with it. This affects small decisions, like ordering food from a restaurant menu, to life-changing decisions like marriage.

How does Schwartz recommend we remedy this? He has a number of suggestions. The most important is be a satisficer, not a maximiser. A satisficer wants something that is “good enough”. A maximiser will spend as much time as possible making the perfect decision. You could spend a month of weekends travelling around stores to find the perfect coffee table. Or you could buy the first one that would look good enough in your house. Which option do you think will make you the happiest?

It’s option B by a long way. Option A not only wastes all of your weekends, but you will regret all the possible coffee tables you did not buy, and the happiness of finding the best one will wear off over time. Which brings me onto another one of his suggestions: be aware that your happiness is making a good decision will wear off over time. If you expect it, it is not as bad.

Finally, consider artificially limiting your choices sometimes. Do you know one of those people who always choose the same thing when you go to a restaurant? They’re usually really happy with their food. Instead of considering twenty different locations to visit on holiday, consider two or three. Make a non-refundable booking so you don’t get tempted to change your mind and you will enjoy it more.


It is also worth noting that not everyone agrees with Schwartz. I wrote about this last month in a blog post about Schwartz’s TED talk on the same topic.



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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 13th, 2016 at 10:49 am and is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.