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The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

by Barry Schwartz, 2004, HarperCollins, 265 pages, US$23.95 list. ISBN 0-06-000568-8.

A majority of people want more control over their lives and more choices. But a majority also want to simplify their lives. "There you have itthe paradox of our times" (p. 25).

This fascinating and very readable book explores why "more is less." There is a cost to having an overload of choices. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist and professor, explores the darker side of freedom.

The United States is founded upon in a commitment to individual freedom and autonomy. Freedom is essential to self respect, public participation, and mobility. Most people welcome new choices. A greater range of choices should lead to better outcomes and greater happiness. While the outcomes may improve objectively, the typical result is feeling worse about the outcomes subjectively.

What's going on? With more choices:

Two shopper personalities are contrasted: Maximizers seek and accept only the best. Satisficers accept the first choice that is good enough. There is a strong correlation between being maximizers and having depression. Further, maximizers tend to be less satisfied with their choices despite investing considerable time in their decisions.

In explaining some shopping behaviors, Schwartz describes some of the classic biases: availability, frames, anchoring, and the endowment effect. A new one, for me, was the "peak-end" effect. In recalling, people's memory of the quality of an experience is driven primarily by the peak experience (either good or bad) and by the end experience. Perhaps this is why so many books or shows that we remember enjoying had happy endings.

What to do? Swartz offers these suggestions for more decision satisfaction and a happier life:

The bottom line: Satisfice more and maximize less.

What is missing: There is little or no discussion of probability and quantitative decision criteria. I think much of the anxiety of having many choices and trade-offs can be minimized by having a reasoned, quantitative decision policy. Decompose the problem and tally the score. Use expected value, of course, to incorporate judgments as probability distributions.

The Paradox of Choice is an excellent, fun read.  I would especially recommend this to people who spend of lot of time shopping and to young adults facing career and other life decisions.

—John Schuyler, February 2005.

Copyright 2005 by John R. Schuyler. All rights reserved. Permission to copy with reproduction of this notice.