Book: The Paradox of Choice

Book: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Jordan blogged a while back about the nature of choices, and I mentioned in a comment there that I was wanting to read this book. Of course, the book goes into a lot more detail than a blog post could: in this review I’ll try and cover the main things that struck me in reading the book.

There was a lot of buzz around author Barry Schwartz – and for this book in particular – around blogs when the book came out, but it was probably his
TED talk that crystalised for me his ability to speak with great insight on the topic.

And so this book finally made it to the top of my reading list.

No-one can query that we have more options available to us now than any generation has had before. Access to education is better, career options are broader. We have more disposable income than past generations. But are we happier? The answer, in general, is no.

Schwartz gives the example from his own life of going shopping for a pair of jeans. Where once there was simply a single option based on waist size, and it was possible to buy jeans in five minutes, it’s now something that can take an hour or more. The result – if you get everything right – is a much more comfortable pair of jeans, but the amount of pressure involved in making the decision is so much higher: if you don’t enjoy being under that kind of pressure, you may be less happy with this better choice.

The book introduced a range of terms that I hadn’t heard before. Two kinds of people are introduced: maximizers and satisficers. A satisficer has high standards, but will settle for anything that will meet those standards: having found something that matches their criteria, the search is over. A maximizer will keep going on the search, looking for the best option for the particular decision they’re making.

The problem with maximizing is that it comes with a high cost, and can lead to choice paralysis – an inability to make a decision out of fear of making the wrong choice.

Another term: the hedonic index. Are you generally happy, or sad? In the process of researching a decision, making the decision, and reflecting on it, does this make you happier, or sadder?

When you’re considering an option, how do you evaluate it? If you’re paying for petrol, do you feel better about getting a $0.10 per litre discount, or avoiding a $0.10 surcharge? Some fascinating studies are contained inside the book, suggesting that people will feel twice as good about something that saves them money/opportunity as something that costs them money/opportunity.

Another term you might be unfamiliar with is opportunity cost – making one decision will prevent you from being able to make certain other decisions. This cartoon appears in the book:

A well-dressed couple without kids speak to a more scruffy couple who have kids: the caption of the cartoon - 'We found we really missed going to the theatre and eating in nice restaurants, so we gave our kids away.'

The trouble, though, is that the time you spend working out which opportunity to select is costing you other opportunities. Taking a long time to decide may be costing you all kinds of opportunities.

As we’ve seen with the example of the petrol price, the framing of a question makes a big difference. Here’s a slightly paraphrased

Say you are a doctor making a choice of medication for a group of 600 remote villagers. If you choose Medicine A, you will save 200 people. If you choose treatment B, there is a one-third chance that you will save all 600 people, and a two-thirds chance that you will save no-one. Which one will you choose?

Most people chose A, preferring to save a definite number of lives.

Say you are a doctor making a choice of medication for a group of 600 remote villagers. If you choose Medicine C, exactly 400 people will die. If you choose treatment D, there is a one-third chance that no-one will die, and a two-thirds chance that everyone will die. Which one will you choose?

In this case, most people choose treatment D: they would rather risk losing everyone than settle for the death of 400.

But of course the two scenarios are exactly the same: only the framing has changed. If we are so easily swayed by the wording of a question, how much can we really trust our ability to assess the information on which we’re basing our decisions?

Perhaps if we run such risk of being unhappy, the way to fix the problem is to have our decisions remain reversible. If we buy something, and we can take it back, that will make it easier – yes? The book suggests that this is not the case. If you have the option of taking something back, your level of satisfaction with the choice will be lower than if you are forced to hang on to it!

There are two kinds of regret that haunt us when we’re in the process of making choices. The first, which you are likely familiar with, is post-decision regret (buyer’s remorse). Once you have made a decision, you analyse it and come to regret it. The other one, though, is anticipated regret. Before you even make the decision, you feel bad about the fear of having made the wrong decision.

Ignoring the gold medalist, who is happier: the silver medalist or the bronze? The silver medalist has the greater sense of regret – they nearly missed out on the gold medal! The bronze medalist, on the other hand, has just escaped obscurity – their sense of relief will likely outweigh their sense of regret.

Everything suffers from comparison: to the choices we may have made, to the better items that someone else might have. Ask someone to predict how happy they will be with a choice, and they will over-estimate that level of happiness.

The secret to happiness, Schwartz tells us, is low expectations. When our expectations are too high, we will never encounter anything that makes us happy: we will only see disappointment.

What should we do? The book closes by commenting on this bullet points.

  • choose when to choose
  • be a chooser, not a picker (limit the number of options early in the choice process)
  • satisfice more, maximise less
  • think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs
  • make decisions non-reversible (so you can’t look back and regret)
  • have an attitude of gratitude (not of disappointment)
  • regret less
  • anticipate adaptation (the new thing that you have will, in a few months, not make you feel good in the same way it does now)
  • control expectations
  • curt
    ail social comparison
  • learn to love constraints

We all have choices to make. This book can help you understand why you’re happy with some of your choices, and unhappy with others: you should read it.

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