Review: The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

by Barry Schwartz

© 2004 ISBN: 0-06-000569-6

Find it at Amazon or your local library.

Today we have more choice available to us than at any previous point in human history. We can do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want. And if capitalism and American culture has taught us anything, it’s that choice is not only good but essential to human freedom. When we talk about horrible facist states in other parts of the world, we talk about the lack of personal freedom that the populace has. Choice is extremely valuable to us; it is an essential part of who we are. We hold it near and dear to our heart. And more choice always equals more good.

It seems counter intuitive, then, that in this golden era of choice and personal freedom that study after study shows that personal happiness is declining in recent years. It would make sense that if more choice gives us more freedom and more freedom makes us happier, that we would continue to get happier and happier as more choice is given to us. Instead we have run into what Schwartz calls the “tyranny of choice”. There are so many choices open to us that we cannot effectively choose between them.

The problem lies with the amount of options that we have. Every time we make a selection, we are choosing against all the other options. When we choose to go left, we cannot also choose to go right. The stakes are raised each time another option is added to the choice, because choosing one option among twenty is choosing against the other nineteen options. Each option has its own pros and cons to it and that makes it even more difficult when trying to make a decision. Every facet is explored, every quality is considered. The more time we spend on making the decision, the greater we expect the results of that decision to be. After all, we put in a lot of work into it and we should show greater returns on that work. That raises the stakes even more. 

Even after we make the decision, we will suffer with the results. We all have that feeling of regret sometimes, when we consider the road un-taken. So, we are driven to fight that feeling of regret by attempting to choose the Best Option, the one that we will never regret. This is what Schwartz calls Maximization - the attitude that there is a golden option out there, an option that is quantitatively better than all the other options. Maximizers spend a lot of time making their decisions, exploring every option available to them (and, in so doing, raise the stakes of their decisions).

We’ve become a culture of maximizers. We need what the Best Option - nothing else will do. This ultimately leads to unhappiness, though. There is no such thing as a Best Option for most choices. And the time we spend trying to find a Best Option only raises the cost of the decision. This leads to a sense of helplessness and we being to avoid decisions, lest we make the wrong choice. What we need to do is become Satisficers.

Satisficers are people who are content with an option that satisfies their criteria for a good option without trying to find the Best Option. Let’s say I am looking for a sweater. Instead of going to all the stores and trying on all the sweaters and considering all the options, I decide that I want a sweater that is red, has a nice cut, and is under $25. When I come across the sweater that fits that criteria, I end my search. There’s no need to go anywhere else because I found the sweater the meets my requirements. And I am much happier because I was able to control my options.

Schwartz gives some good tips on how to become happier choosers. One of the most pertinent is that we should settle for “good enough” rather than trying to find the very best. it’s usually not worth it. Also, we should be more grateful with what we have. The vast majority of people in the world do not have to face the choice of what new car they should buy. They’re too busy with trying to find drinkable water. We need to be much more grateful with what we have. We must control out expectations as well. We cannot have everything we want, despite what may be force-fed to us from Madison Avenue everyday. Finally, we absolutely have to curtail social comparison. We need to stop judging our choices by how other people live. There will always be somebody better off than you. Be content with what you have and you’ll live a much happier life.

So, overall, the book was good. Schwartz does a good job of synthesizing real psychological research with good common sense. My only problem with it is that it does get a bit preachy. It’s a good book to read, though, and makes a good argument about why more choice does not mean more happiness.

Rating: ***– (three stars)


RSA Animate - Choice (by theRSAorg)


Great characters don’t always make sense. I mean, yeah, they tend to follow the same patterns but they don’t always do the same thing. Part of being human is our ability to choose, so, give your characters some choices and they’ll be more human as a result! You should never think in formulas when you’re in your characters head. Always exceptions, of course, but unless your character is supposed to have a very formulated thought process, you shouldn’t be going, “because she’s X, she’ll do X” or “because he hates X, he’d never agree to X.” There should always be reasons for your character to consider the things you think they’d never agree to.

Take, for example, my character Alice. She’s stubborn and selfish as all heck. Selfish to the point of cruel, at times. She will (and has) made other characters cry with her inclination to assume the worst in people and always look out for herself. And once she feels justified in her selfishness, she’ll get so deep into that rut that she absolutely refuses to consider other viewpoints. She’s often the only voice of truth in her world, in all her biased glory. But this same character spent over an hour in the pouring rain, looking for a girl she’d only just met. Alice had to be forcibly removed from the storm by two more reasonable-minded characters, and even then she couldn’t get the other girl off her mind. It was killing her that she couldn’t do more to help a stranger that was in such obvious emotional pain, alone and in the rain while Alice was warm and dry at home.

So does this single incident of kindness poof away her selfishness? Not at all. She can be selfish and selfless at the same time. Don’t we all act the same? Sometimes we’ll share a Hershey’s bar with friends, while other times we want it for ourselves. Yes, people can be predictable. But there are so many thoughts and considerations that go into a character’s decision making, so it should never be a solid black or white answer. And it’s not just the choice; it’s also the thought process that goes into that choice. Have recent events affected their thinking? Maybe they got a random act of kindness and felt inclined/expected to pass it on? Maybe they’re just having a better or worse day than normal. In any case, they should struggle over their choices. Some decisions will come easier than others, and sometimes they land on a choice that you wouldn’t expect from them. Why? Who really knows? People are paradoxes. They contradict themselves. I think a lot of this relates back to core values and how your character chooses to balance what they believe in.

This is probably a topic I’ll bring up a lot. Clinging to a tight mindset on who your character is will often only make your character seem flat and contrived as a result. It’s suffocating to your characters to think they can be easily defined, or to label them based on a few traits.

Seriously, Alice still surprises me and I’ve been writing 1st person from her head for the last year. I recently found out that another of my characters knows her better than I do. Embarrassing.


Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative. Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, 1% of Earth-like planets develop life (if that’s true, every grain of sand would represent one planet with life on it). And imagine that on 1% of those planets, the life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe.

Moving back to just our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.[1]

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organization dedicated to listening for signals from other intelligent life. If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

Where is everybody?
The paradox of choice

My man Joshua Topolsky, reporting on the avalanche of indistinguishable, never-to-be-seen-again devices at the Consumer Electronics Show:

Nowhere is that deluge of products more visible — literally — than at CES. The millions of square feet on the LVCC’s show floor are jam-packed with model after model of what could easily be the same product. HDTVs line booth after booth, sprout up towards the ceiling, and tumble over garish, elaborate displays. Smartphones and their accessories (mostly docks) dot outlines and make paths through massive Sony and Samsung micro-worlds, while the smudged glare of anonymous Android tablets greets you at every new spectacle. Nothing seems original.

For a journalist, it’s daunting — for shoppers, it’s starting to seem impossible.

Barry Schwartz wrote a book on the paradox of choice and was invited to TED 2005 to present his ideas. His talk has been viewed nearly 2 million times.


Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice.

Great video…Give it a watch.

And, because I cannot resist ...

… more Freya Stark. Last for the day. I don’t know that I fully agree with her here; there is much to pick apart. But her thoughts on the importance of the “middle class” (is her definition from the 1940s much the same as ours today?) are provocative as in America wealth becomes more concentrated and poverty grows:

[T]he middle class produces civilization because it is the only class constantly trained to come to a conclusion, poised as it is between the depth and height. It is not rich enough to have everything, nor poor enough to have nothing – and has to choose: to choose between a succulent table and a fine library, between travel and a flat in town, between a car and a new baby, or a fur coat and a ball dress: it has enough of the superfluous to give it freedom from necessity, but only through the constant use of discrimination: its life therefore is one long training of the judgement and the will. This by itself need not manufacture greatness; but it is the soil in which it is possible to make it grow. And for this reason, when the rich become too rich and the poor too poor, and fewer and fewer people live under the constant discipline of their decisions, the age of greatness withers. To produce the lifelong stimulus of choice both in thought and action should be the aim of all education, and the statesman ought above all things to provide a government that remains in the hands of people whose life has trained them in the inestimable art of making up their minds.