Paradox of Choice

I recently had the opportunity to hear Barry Schwartz speak. He’s a professor at Swarthmore who is most well known for his work on the Paradox of Choice.

So what’s the deal with the Paradox of Choice?

In a nutshell, we act as if the following syllogism is true:

More freedom = more well-being
More choice = more freedom
More choice = more well-being

In reality, it generally doesn’t work out that way.

So is choice good or bad? It’s good, but it’s not ONLY good.

Too much choice leads to:

  • Paralysis – just can’t decide
  • Bad choices – too many options increases one’s chances of picking the wrong one – people are not good at thinking through all the implications of complicated futures, don’t understand probability, don’t want to lose, and don’t want to spend money
  • Lower satisfaction – even if you choose well, you worry that you didn’t, feel the opportunity costs more acutely, and have escalated expectations (if there are many options, one of them should be PERFECT, rather than just good enough)

The severity of problem depends on whether one approaches choice as a maximizer (you want THE BEST) or a satisficer (you just want something that’s good enough). Satisficers are generally happier. Maximizers generally choose better but feel worse about their choices. And as choices become more portentous, we’re more likely to want to be maximizers, which means we’re less likely to be happy about the outcomes.

So what can we do? What’s the solution?

Schwartz postulates libertarian paternalism. Design a system so that people acting as expected will mostly get what they want but always allow them the ability to opt out. In a world with no limits, people end up disorganized, paralyzed, and unhappy. We need some constraints, but, as he points out, it’s very hard to figure out the right number.