The Paradox of Choice

In 2009 Barry Schwartz wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice, about how the multiplication of choice tends to paralyze rather than liberate us. If you don’t have time for the book, you can watch his 18-minute TED talk from 2005, and if you don’t have time to watch that you can skim through this decent summary. And if those choices are overwhelming you, I’ll pass along the two best bits of advice I found in the summary.

As always, there are two kinds of people in the world—in this context, maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers put in the work needed to be sure they are making the best possible choice, while satisficers are content with a choice that is good enough. It turns out that maximizers do actually end up with the best stuff, but satisficers are happier on the whole because they spend much less time agonizing over a choice.

Verdict: be a satisficer. But be the best satisficer you can be. Two bits of advice can help with that.

Bit One: Don’t look at all the options. Instead, decide which criteria need to be met, then simply settle for the first option you encounter that meets those criteria.

Just sit down and ask yourself what do I care about in a car and then, having articulated that, you go and buy the first car you see that satisfies your standards with respect to the things you care about.

Likely there are many options you haven’t yet discovered which are better in some way than the first option that meets the criteria. But they aren’t better in ways that matter to you. Putting aside the desire to have better for its own sake will help free you from the tyranny of choosing.

Bit Two: Rely on the opinions of knowledgeable people. Schwartz phrases this as “rely on your maximizer friends”, but I think this is misleading. I am dead center in the satisficer camp—friends are sometimes taken aback at how quickly I reach a decision—but there are certain things I know quite a bit about due to professional interests, not because I have to know every option in every situation. So if you’re looking for a certain kind of open source software, or a home or professional Windows computer (but not a Mac or a gaming computer), I can narrow down your choices for you just about as well as any maximizer.

But if you substitute “knowledgeable” for “maximizer”, Schwartz does offer a nice statement of why you should take this approach:

Whenever you need a new laptop, call up one of your maximizer friends and say, “What laptop did you buy?” And you buy that laptop. Is it going to be the perfect laptop for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good enough laptop for you? Absolutely. It takes you five minutes to make a decision instead of five weeks and it’s a “good enough” decision.

You need a place to eat in a city that you’re visiting, so call another friend who’s been to that city. Just go to the restaurant he tells you to go to. I don’t think you can delegate all of the decisions in life in this way but you can certainly delegate a hell of a lot of them. What’s best for your friend won’t be best for you but chances are it will be good enough for you. I think this is a great way to reduce the clutter and the paralysis that afflicts people. Just ask for advice and follow it.

The point, in both cases, is to minimize the time spent agonizing over the choice, and to spare yourself the agony. It isn’t worth it.

I also like Schwartz’s summary.

Remember that good enough is almost always good enough. If people go through life looking for good enough results, the choice problem will take care of itself. Go through your day getting a good enough cup of coffee and a good enough toasted bagel and so on and so on and life will look much sunnier.

I don’t think anyone would dispute this. Perhaps we just undervalue sunniness.

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