The Paradox of Choice

by Barry Schwartz

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1778

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 choices people make. “Having too many choices produces psychological stress,” Schwartz states, “especially when combined with regret, concern about status, adaptation, social comparison, and perhaps most important, the desire to have the best of everything.”

Connecting one's emotional state to the abundance of options is disturbing enough on the level of simple shopping, where irritation is a common result. Schwartz goes further, however, drawing examples from areas such as education, religion, friendship, romance, work, health care, and so on. He asserts that, “as a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.” Consider the large numbers of adults, he says, who find it increasingly difficult to decide what career to pursue or to choose their life partner. People find it difficult to decide what city to live in (or what state or country) or even—with the proliferation of cosmetic surgeries—to know how they want their bodies to look. These are areas, Schwartz says, where an overabundance of options is doing serious damage.

Schwartz connects the proliferation of choices with statistics that show that the American “happiness quotient” has been falling for more than a generation. Studies indicate that individual happiness is related to human interaction, and Schwartz believes that the social fabric of society is no longer a birthright. Relationships have to be consciously chosen, he says, and Americans are finding this harder and harder to do. Instead of being seduced by an overload of options, Schwartz suggests that people should embrace voluntary limits on freedom of choice and accept what is “good enough” rather than try to have the best of everything.

Schwartz also suggests that people lower expectations about the results of the choices they make and start thinking of decisions as irreversible. In addition, Schwartz advises his readers to care less about what other people are doing. He speaks strongly and directly, stating that until the American public realizes that having too many choices is a problem, people will not be able to ignore the seemingly endless alternatives that are proliferating and make more satisfying decisions. This book is Schwartz's attempt to bring such knowledge to light.

An important issue underlying the material that Schwartz presents involves the question of whether one is a maximizer or a satisficer. He offers a short quiz to his readers (courtesy of the American Psychological Association), who can in this way learn where they stand on the maximizer/satisficer scale. So-called maximizers are people who demand the very best and believe that every purchase or decision must be at that level. Satisficers, on the other hand, are able to settle for something that is good enough, without worrying that there might be a better alternative somewhere. Of course, no one is all maximizer or all satisficer in every situation. The tendencies, though, are real and thought-provoking. Schwartz explains that “to a maximizer, satisficers appear to be willing to settle for mediocrity, but that is not the case. A satisficer may be just as discriminating as a maximizer. The difference between the two types is that the satisficer is content with merely excellent as opposed to the absolute best.” Schwartz continues, “I believe that the goal of maximizing is a source of great dissatisfaction, that it can make people miserable—especially in a world that insists on providing an overwhelming number of choices, both trivial and not so trivial.”

The Paradox of Choice has been well received, though subject matter that features the words “freedom” and “choice” is likely to touch nerves in the public arena. Some criticism has centered around the concept of self-help. Some people would like more of a “cookbook” approach to action than Schwartz provides; others have said that the nine steps to happier living Schwartz offers in his short, final chapter detract from the real strength of the work, which involves the unresolved, not-so-tidy questions the book raises. Such controversy is perhaps unavoidable, and criticism from neither side seems particularly damning.

Some of the suggestions Schwartz offers may sound like platitudes, such as number six, “Practice an ’Attitude of Gratitude’” and number seven, “Regret Less.” Others are rich and ripe for rumination. For example, Schwartz explains in step one, “Choose When to Choose,” that people should consciously decide “which choices in our lives really matter and focus our time and energy there, letting many other opportunities pass us by.” This is easier said than done, but Schwartz argues convincingly that is it worth pursuing. He does not infantalize the task by cheering his readers on. In fact, Schwartz warns that taking these steps will be hard and may even require a new way of thinking. The Paradox of Choice provides solid reasoning to enable its readers to do so.

This book succeeds in bringing option overload into the reader's consciousness and sparking discussion. Those who have already considered the subject may find that The Paradox of Choicesupports some of their ideas and undermines others. Readers who have not given the subject much consideration are likely to be enticed to do so. Schwartz has blended personal anecdotes and other commonplace examples with academic research studies, basic psychology concepts, and—every once in a while—a great New Yorker cartoon.

References to researchers, academic studies, and results are included in such a way that they enhance, rather than disturb, the wholeness of Schwartz's argument. Detailed explanations and citations are provided in endnotes for readers who want more. The Paradox of Choice is a provocative book in which readers will recognize themselves and their society, complete with quirks and quandaries. It is likely to make people look at their own decision-making in a new light. Some may be surprised, at least initially, by the objective research that Schwartz presents and its reflection in everyday American experience. Readers will probably come away from this book with more questions than answers and with a renewed sense of the possibility for—and the necessity of—change.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 6 (November 15, 2003): 550.

Business Week, April 26, 2004, p. 25.

The Christian Science Monitor, January 6, 2004, p. 18.

Library Journal 128, no. 20 (December 15, 2003): 148.

New Statesman 133 (June 7, 2004): 49.

The New Yorker 80, no. 2 (March 1, 2004): 91.

Psychology Today 37 (March/April, 2004): 79.

USA Today, January 20, 2004, p. 4D.

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