The paradox of choice

I’ve been reading about the paradox of choice: the notion that, while choice is essential to your happiness and well-being, too much choice can be overwhelming, confusing, and create feelings of anxiety, depression and perpetual dissatisfaction. While freedom of choice is possibly a fundamental requirement for our well-being, the sort of choice we’re presented with as consumers these days – millions of different products, services, plans, whatever – is so incomprehensibly large that decision-making can become arduous, incredibly time-consuming, stressful, and fraught with angst and regret.

The idea of too much choice being a bad thing has been explored pretty extensively in the psychological research (including some intriguing experiments involving copious amounts of chocolate and jam) and its most high-profile champion is Professor Barry Schwartz, an American research psychologist. His summary of the scientific research and his personal thoughts on the premise, its causes and its consequences come together in his popular book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.

I’ll leave you to make up your own minds about Professor Schwartz’s opinion regarding the abundance of choice (there’s a TED talk here of him discussing the paradox of choice, or a Radiolab podcast featuring Schwartz discussing how much choice is too much here, or you could try to get hold of the book). I think the psychological research underpinning it is very sound, but I have my reservations about how generalisable it is to the overall real-life experience of being a consumer in a consumerism-driven society (Schwartz is usually specifically referring to American society, but it’s obviously relevant to varying extents to many others).

For example, I’m not sure that people generally feel “tyrannised” (Schwartz’s word) by choice in a lot of the situations that the paradox of choice is supposedly applicable to. As sophisticated consumers, I think we’ve generally developed strategies and guidelines that help us deal with making choices – we head for brands we’re familiar with, we’re guided by our likes and dislikes and budget, and Schwartz’s emphasis on the sheer number of options available to us (e.g. the 175 different types of salad dressing he has counted in his local supermarket) doesn’t change the fact that not all of those options are in contention when making a choice – most of them will be screened out by personal tastes, brand preferences, price, and lots of other factors. We’ve surely learned to navigate more astutely through our sea of options and aren’t at the mercy of the staggering magnitude of choices presented to us. Sometimes the quest to find the ideal thing can be, well, a bit fun.

I think we can to some extent take pride in our ability as consumers to actually assess an abundance of information and extract some sort of sound answer from it, which doesn’t seem to be exactly how Schwartz pictures the average consumer. Schwartz mentions that his desire for a simple jeans-purchasing experience was thwarted by the flurry of questions the salesperson threw at him – slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, extra baggy, stoned-washed, acid-washed, distressed, button-fly, zip-fly, faded, regular? He says he was stunned by this. Really, though? Is it not relevant that you could probably actually answer all of those questions, given a moment’s thought?

Anyway, the point is that Schwartz does make some good recommendations at the end of his book about how to stay happy with the choices you have made, or to at least increase your chances of staying happy. I think these could be pretty helpful to consider when trying to be a more thoughtful, responsible consumer – the happier you are with your past purchases, perhaps the less likely you are to feel the need to make new, potentially wasteful, pointless or redundant purchases.

Anticipate adaptation
If you experience something regularly enough, you adapt to it – the novelty wears off, it doesn’t seem quite as exciting as before, the hedonic thrill just isn’t quite there any more. Anticipating this adaptation – reminding yourself before a purchase of an item that it won’t always be as fantastic – will allow your to remain content with your purchase, even if it doesn’t seem quite so thrilling any more. (This kind of ties in with this post of mine about research showing that people usually predict that a purchase will make them happier than it ever does, and don’t realise after the purchase has been made that it hasn’t made them as happy as they thought it would.)

Make your decisions non-reversible
It seems eminently sensible to try to buy things that you can return if you’re unhappy with them, rather than things you can’t return. Everyone likes the reassurance provided by a good returns policy. Actually, giving yourself that freedom to return an item you’ve chosen can make it more likely that you’ll consider returning it, even if you could have otherwise been happy with it. You’ve got the option to return it, so you’re at liberty to criticise it and analyse it and try to find flaws with it, which might ultimately make you more dissatisfied than you otherwise would be. I’m not sure that this recommendation of Schwartz’s would actually affect buying behaviour or even make people feel better about ever buying “final sale, no returns” items, but it’s worth thinking about – the mere possibility of being able to reverse your decision may be enough to make you doubt it when you might otherwise have actually been happy with it.

Practice an “attitude of gratitude”
It might sound a bit touchy-feely but it’s really quite sensible. It just means that we should try to make the effort to focus on the good aspects of what we did choose, which will make us feel more satisfied than dwelling on the good aspects of whatever we didn’t choose. If we don’t think about the things we passed up, we stay happier with what we’ve got, so try to appreciate the good aspects of what you do have.

Curtail social comparison
We humans have a tendency to compare ourselves to others. Sometimes that’s constructive and motivating, but sometimes it’s just pointless and makes us dissatisfied, because we think about how someone else owns something we don’t have or how we want to buy something in order to show off something about ourselves. We end up in a not-exactly-constructive mentality of buying things we don’t need in order to broadcast something about ourselves to everyone around us. And when it comes to things we don’t need, as Schwartz says “remember that ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’ is a bumper sticker, not wisdom”. It’s perhaps easier said than done, but try to limit making those sorts of social comparisons, because usually they’re simply not necessary or constructive.

I think the above few points are pretty useful to remember when trying to be a circumspect, responsible consumer (even if some of the points are a bit self-evident, but sometimes a reminder is necessary). But as for Schwartz’s opinion in general of how to deal with the paradox of choice, I simply cannot get onboard with the notion that “the secret to happiness is low expectations” as he says in that TED talk of his, since his main way of dealing with too much choice is to arbitrarily limit choices – don’t look in more than two shops for a pair of jeans! – and then settle for “good enough” rather than knocking yourself out on the quest for “perfection” and then angsting over whether something else even more perfect (impossible by definition, but whatever) exists. I don’t think the majority of people behave that way (or if they do it’s only in specific areas of their lives, so it’s not negatively impacting their lives on the whole), especially since consumers are surely learning and adapting to this new environment of immense choice, and new generations will consider such choice a way of life.

And I think the enormous range of choice means that we can at least asymptotically approach finding “perfection” and the satisfaction that comes with it (if we use the right strategies and have enough time).

6 Thoughts on “The paradox of choice

  1. hi jess! this is essentially the reason why i’ve stopped buying things and imposed a shopping ban on myself while i learn how to build my wardrobe. while it is partly motivated by financial reasons, a lot of it is from falling in love with menswear and how a lot of men curate their wardrobe and build on basics. it’s then that i realize how so many of the fairer sex has been brainwashed by society (PR/Ad machine) in comparison.
    anyway i came over here to thank you for the insightful comment that you made on my blog. im so glad you dropped by because ive been browsing your archive for the past hour and have been enjoying it immensely. I LOVE YOUR BLOG. anyway hopefully i can write more about consumption, fashion and “luxury goods” through the perspective of my academic focus of economics the way you do through yours.

    • Jess on March 4, 2012 at 6:36 pm said:

      This whole effort of mine to be more analytical about my purchases was partly financially motivated too, but in the process of doing the research for my posts I feel like I’ve come across so many other motivators to keep being cautious and circumspect and analytical about my decision-making and my choices (at least when it comes to material purchases, since I’m not really having to make any genuinely big decisions in my life at the moment, like about jobs or whatever). Another motivator would certainly be the fact that, as you’ve pointed out, women are more heavily targeted when it comes to fashion purchases and we’ve been sold this ridiculous notion of seasonal trends and needing to keep up with them. Being targeted in such a way makes me outraged enough that my instinctive reaction is to try even harder to keep being exactly what all those marketing departments and PR machines don’t want me to be: intelligent, informed, and not swayed by ephemeral trends in the slightest, and to want my wardrobe to be practical, functional, and to endure as well as possible through many seasons and years (so all the things that menswear is more likely to be expected to be than womenswear). I guess it also helps that my personal style is very much (to use a horrible phrase beloved of fashion copy-writers everywhere, for the sake of expedience!) “borrowed from the boys” these days so taking inspiration from menswear is certainly made a bit easier to translate into practice.

      Thanks so much for you comment, Joy. I’ve been reading your blog for months now – one of a pretty short list of intelligent, thoughtful, analytical style/fashion-related blogs that I’ve got RSS feeds for through my Google Reader. It was blogs like yours and the questions they raise that made me feel like starting a blog at all. :)

  2. Hello! Thank you so much for this post. It’s a very interesting subject you’re writing about and I’m a bit keen to read Scwhartz’ book. I’m the kind of person who hates the freedom choice, mostly because I don’t trust my judgement at all. I always make the wrong decisions. When I’m facing two totally different alternatives, I always choose what I don’t want because I always suppose that the alternative I want isn’t the right one. Even when I go to restaurants I always complain about the 100 different options and yet when I go to restaurant with only 5 dishes on the menu I’m completely unable to make a decision myself. I make people to decide for me, I even tell the waiter to surprise me because I can’t choose – because I’m always frightened I’ll make another bad choice. I think it’s also because I don’t want to blame myself for the bad decisions which I always do, especially when it comes to bigger and more significant situations such as love life, to whom to lose virginity, what to do in an ethical situations. I think I’m also afraid that bad choices will haunt me for the rest of my life, that I will not have the chance to make up for them. I guess my mindset is quite influenced by Sartre sayings about “We are our choices” and that we are fully responsible for our choices. That’s why I try to avoid making decisions. It’s silly, but I can’t help it. It’s like the road not taken.. you never know the result, thus every choice seems so wrong. Haha, sorry for the babble!

    • Jess on March 4, 2012 at 8:27 pm said:

      Oh, definitely try to get hold of Schwartz’s book, then! It has chapters dedicated to how choice can seem overwhelming and arduous precisely because it often involves loss aversion, which is exactly what you’ve described – wanting to avoid making a poor decision, wanting to avoid the regret that might come from making the decision, that sort of thing. I think it would be illogical to be completely blasé about all decisions, but I feel like the answer is not to simply give in and to lower one’s standards so that you’ll end up happy regardless. Like I’m pretty bad at making choices about what to order at restaurants too, but I can’t imagine ever lowering my standards to, say, “Oh, well, as long as the food isn’t awful, I’ll be happy” and then actually genuinely being happy with something that simply isn’t awful. And if I do make a choice I regret at a restaurant, I don’t think I dwell on that regret for a detrimentally long amount of time (I’ll usually be pretty annoyed for the rest of the night, if it was at dinner, but I’ll be fine the next day, haha). Like I said, the research underpinning decision-making is robust (and absolutely fascinating, for sure) but I’m just not sure about Schwartz’s interpretation of it in some regards. But that is totally up for debate!

  3. For me, going to restaurants isn’t something I do often. Eating out in Norway is so expensive, so whenever I dine out I want the meal to be perfect or perfectly edible – sometimes it’s a bit too much to ask, haha. I want the meal to be worth the expense, the wait, the expectations. I don’t think I could ever lower my standards, haha, but I often find myself regretting that I opted for a dish that I didn’t really want to begin with only to have a taste of my mom’s or sister’s dish that turned out to be perfect, which is something I initially had decided to go for. Ah, this is just a silly little thing.. this is about restaurants. I suppose you can imagine how hard other choices can be. I’ve had a bad habit of choosing fun over other things. Like a couple of weeks ago, I paid $300 to postpone my Berlin trip for one day just because I wanted to go to a magazine launch. I initially didn’t want to go, but I was dwelling on this for so many days and eventually my mom just ordered a new one way ticket to Berlin even if I didn’t really want to go (but I was avoiding making a choice.. subconsciously waited for someone else to take action)… and was that magazine party worth all the stress, over-thinking, not to mention the horrible expense? Not at all. Maybe we should just go with our first instinct, don’t you think?

    • Definitely, the psychology/neuroscience research on the topic tends to point in the direction of going with first instincts rather than over-thinking all your options. There are obviously exceptions to that, as there are situations when you really need to weigh up all the options carefully because it would be irresponsible not to, but for a lot of decisions, just going with your first impulse is often a good approach. Basically, the research says that unless you’re an expert, you’re better off going with your instincts (so unless you’re trained to make that specific decision, then there’s not much to be gained from trying to weigh up the alternatives and over-thinking the whole thing). The somatic markers hypothesis is a potential explanation for this – the brain picks up on particular physiological markers that have been previously associated with particular outcomes. So for example, you might not realise it, but when you’re making a particular decision, your heart rate might increase, which your brain associates with having happened when you’ve made bad decisions in the past, so your instinct might be that the decision is bad, even if you’re not entirely sure why you feel that way. Or maybe you’re making a particular decision and your heart rate doesn’t increase, and on some level your brain picks up on that and notices that you’re calmer than you have been when making other decisions, and that your heart rate stayed steady in the past when making good decisions, so this instinctively feels like a good decision too. So your brain is looking for physiological signs that have been associated with good or bad decisions in the past, and that’s what your instinct is. It’s not entirely baseless and random – it’s based on your past experiences, so it’s a perfectly valid thing to pay attention to. It won’t always be the right decision, and it’s not necessarily the right method to use for all decisions, but I think it does have the potential to make decision-making in daily life less aversive!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Post Navigation