(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, a social scientist at Swarthmore College, is itself a paradox. It presents detailed research in choice and decision-making conducted by psychologists, economists, market researchers, and decision scientists. It has a humorous, upbeat approach that will be absorbing to the general reader. The book provides “aha” experiences, a sense of new knowledge unfolding that is, at times, counterintuitive. It also offers justification for some underlying suspicions that readers may have held all along. Perhaps that is part of the power of this book. In addition to explaining how and why people make the choices that they do, the author's argument gives credence to the noted sense that something is wrong in a society when the proliferation of available options leaves individuals feeling more and more dissatisfied with the choices they make and less happy with their lives in general.

Schwartz opens with a personal example involving the purchase of a pair of blue jeans. He tends to wear his jeans, Schwartz says, for a long time, so when he found it necessary to buy a new pair at The Gap a few years back, he was unprepared for the options he would find. Schwartz asked the young saleswoman for size 32 waist and 28 inseam, the size he had always worn. He expected to be out of the store with his purchase in just a few minutes. However, she started to ask questions: Did he want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy? Did he want stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Did he want button-fly or zipper-fly? Did he want faded or regular? Schwartz confesses to being stunned, then sputtering out that he just wanted a pair of regular jeans, the kind that used to be the only ones available.

Not knowing what that kind might be, the saleswoman spoke with an older colleague and was able, eventually, to point Schwartz in the right direction. By that time, however, he was starting to second-guess himself. Did he really want the old-fashioned kind? Perhaps one of the other options would be better. He did not know what the differences among the designs were, and the diagrams in the store were no help. Nonetheless, he became convinced that one of them would certainly be preferable. He decided to sample them all. Although Schwartz says he tried on all kinds of jeans that day, he still could not figure out which were the best.

Schwartz ended up with the “easy fit,” and he says they worked out fine. He came away thinking, though, that buying a pair of pants should not be such an ordeal. Given that people have different preferences and body types, having some options is good. However, it does not necessarily follow that more choices are better. As Schwartz explains, “Before these options were available, a buyer like myself had to settle for an imperfect fit, but at least purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.” From his experience, Schwartz had ventured into what he calls the darker side of freedom, where a plethora of choices can not only be irritating but also debilitating, and—he suggests—even tyrannizing.

Schwartz then extends his investigation of consumer options to the supermarket. He reports that at his local market he found—among other things—85 kinds of crackers, 285 varieties of cookies (21 options among chocolate chip cookies alone), 175 salad dressings, and 230 kinds of soups. In the electronics store, there were 45 different car stereo systems, 42 different computers, and 27 kinds of computer printers. He also studied the 20 mail-order catalogs that came to his home each week and the cable television offerings, compiling staggering examples.

Schwartz explains that the standard thinking among social scientists is that added options can only make things better for the consumer. People feel happy and empowered when they have more from which to choose, and one who does not want to sift through the options can simply ignore them. However, Schwartz shows the opposite to be true, citing evidence from studies such as a series titled “Why Choice Is Demotivating,” published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000. Throughout the book, he examines why unchosen options detract from the satisfaction that results from...

(The entire section is 1778 words.)