Do We Have Too Much Choice?

October 17th, 2012 by 

I approach the question of 'choice' with a sort of morbid curiosity.  The idea that, perhaps, less is better isn't a new one, and is probably best captured by Psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice.  You can also get an idea of what he was driving at in his 2005 Ted Talk on the matter.  So, how about it - is the Paradox of Choice a real thing, and is an overabundance of options poisonous to our psyches in our modern market economy?

The Paradox of Choice: More is Less and Less is More?

It sounds almost like an idea straight out of [amazon-product text="1984" type="text"]014118776X[/amazon-product] that, perhaps, choice is holding people back from true happiness.

It strikes me that the dissonance is appropriate - in fact, the doublespeak of the less is more argument pays tributes to its intellectual ally, Ludditism.  Consider the examples pulled straight from Doctor Schwartz's TED talk:

  • There were 6.5 million combinations of stereos possible at a store
  • You can't buy a phone that doesn't have too many features
  • Doctors offer patients choices ("patient autonomy") when the doctor is an expert and the patient likely doesn't know much
  • College aged kids can't make lifestyle decisions so they are occupied in classes
  • There are many different types of salad dressing

Of course, all of those examples build up to a predictable crescendo: an argument for limiting the choices available to consumers.  Why?  Because the multitude of choices means it is likely that the person won't make the optimal choice, and therefore worry about what might have been.  Call it "constant buyer's remorse" or whatever you want- but the idea is: every time you have an option, there is a new opportunity to regret your choice.

The Logical Conclusion

The Paradox of choice: can less options be better?

If only we had less choice! We'd be saved from that scary paradox of choice!

Schwartz went on to recount how he purchased the "best fitting jeans" he had ever found from a selection of 50 - after lamenting that he couldn't just buy his previous crudely fitting jeans (back when they were the only option).  Woe is he.

What is the true issue here?  Expectations - specifically, limiting them.  Since there are so many choices in so many areas, the idea is that our expectations have skyrocketed with our choices - making our lives, well, more miserable than they were previously.  So what should we do?

I often see chain letters or memes which praise simpler times in the past - say, for example, the 1950s.  The argument goes that if we froze progress in the 1950s people would be happier on a whole.  Sure: toss out the wide adoption of home air conditioners and dishwashers and also toss out your modern cars, HDTV(s) and computer(s) - maybe there are some people that would embrace that simplicity.  However, there are a lot of people that wouldn't.  I, for one, enjoy the comforts and conveniences of microwaves, inert gas filled windows and convection ovens, and I love the fact that I get 700 channels delivered to my TV.  I also love the fact that my iPod plugs into my car - and I love the fact my car is faster (and safer) than pretty much anything that existed in 1950.  I can't be alone on this point.  These calls to go back in time also conveniently ignore the progress industrial societies have made in race/gender relations over the last few generations - witness Louis C.K.'s stand up on that (adult content).

Of course, there is only one entity that could even enforce this reduction in choice - the Government.  The entire argument is a framework to get Government to step in to shape society in order to better cater to the people who are overwhelmed.  Consider it the rule of the "weakest link", where no new product could be brought to market if the most overwhelmed among us couldn't handle the extra choice.  God forbid there was another home internet option, because we're all happy with DSL vs. Cable, right?  Right?

How to Be Happy

Dr. Schwartz tells us that the key to happiness is low expectations.  Well, I have incredibly low expectations for the dystopian society that would emerge if his ideas were taken to the logical conclusion, and I'm decidedly not happy about it.  I'm sure it's a generational thing, as well.  Children born since 2000 have pretty much spent their entire life with close to unlimited digital choices, yet they seem to be doing just fine.  The discomfort comes from a slightly older subset - people like Dr. Schwartz and, say, Denis Leary (of "I just want a ****ing coffee flavored coffee!!" fame - yes, the link has more adult language).

The key to happiness isn't tossing out your choices and expectations, or relying on some board of experts to dictate choices to you - it's recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses and optimizing your time.  You cannot optimize every decision - you need to learn early on that sometimes it's okay to pay a few extra dollars to prevent a hassle, or give up a few dollars of return for convenience.  The point is the amount of time you have - 168 hours a week - is a factor you can't overlook when making these decisions (or even just picking randomly).  That's a point well covered recently by our friends at Control Your Cash.

Happiness is not, on the other hand, dictating to other people whether or not they should even have the choices which you are too busy or overwhelmed to make.  Perhaps you don't have the time or inclination to buy individual stocks - does that mean no one should get the chance?  Perhaps 50 pairs of jeans is too many for you - should people of different body types have to sacrifice fitting clothes to placate you?  And yes, if no one is buying phones with less features (and, therefore, they aren't being built), isn't that also a legitimate choice by the market?

We're going to address some of these questions in future articles.  The key to happiness, like I said, is balancing all of the factors - including your time.  That means that we'll take a look at some options where you can save some of that precious resource.

Are you overwhelmed with the choices available to you?  Do you wish there were less choices?  How would you enforce there being less choices if it came down to that?  Is the Paradox of Choice real?

Don't Quit Your Day Job...

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