The paradox of choice

I have a thing for paradoxes. In this TED talk, Barry Schwartz presents the paradox of choice. It is that strange effect that occurs when you eat in a good chinese restaurant: there’s often so many choices in the menu that you can never be satisfied that you picked the right one.

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Schwartz argues against the position that he calls “the official dogma”: that in order to maximise the welfare of our citizens we must maximise individual freedom.

According to Schwartz,

“The reason for [the official dogma] is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human, and because if people have freedom then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximise our welfare and no one has to decide on our behalf.

The way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.

This, I think, is so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to question it.”

[As a side note, the last sentence reminds me of the conspiracy theory about the addition of fluoride in public water systems, that sustains that the fluoride makes the population docile and easy to control.]

Note that we are not talking about the obvious fact that individual freedom isn’t always overall good for society. No one disagrees with the opinion that no one should be free to kill at their will. We are talking about the particular kind of freedom that comes with abundance of choice between a range of similarly legal items.

Schwartz points to the fact that the abundance of choice in modern society, from the detailed ingredients and recipes of our salad dressings to our mobile phones and prescription drugs, leads to a kind of analysis paralysis.

Not only this means more time spent making choices, and less time available to enjoy the outcomes of those choices, but also increased expectations as to the quality of those outcomes. High expectations lead to regret due to the awareness of the opportunity costs associated to not having taken another choice. This regret can often lead to self-disappointment and depression when we become aware that we are in control of much of our lives and that there is no one else to blame for our shortcomings than ourselves. All of this, Schwartz argues, and it is hard to disagree, subtracts from the quality of our life experiences.

He finally argues, as a policy matter, that what enables all this choice is the material affluence of western societies. If some of what enables all the choices in western societies were to be shifted to poorer societies, not only the latter would benefit, but also the more affluent societies. The conclusion, therefore, is that income distribution would make everyone better off, not just poor people.

I hate to deny this extremely attractive conclusion, but I strongly disagree with the implication that it should be official policy to reduce the amount of choice available to individuals.

This is precisely where the paradox arises. In the one hand there seems to be a sound logical argument against too much choice, on the other hand there is an equally strong intuition that most of us wouldn’t actually choose to have our options curtailed if we were given the choice. At most we would prefer to have the option of being offered an “easy-pick”. This, of course, is why McDonald’s introduced their “pick-the-number” menu. Yes, it improves sales, but we like to know we could choose from the more complex chinese restaurant menu if we wanted to.

But if the solution to the paradox does not lie in public policy, how can we solve this problem? Schwartz seems to miss an important point: the solution here can’t and won’t come from policy, it must come from psychology and philosophy. It is the individuals that need to be changed, not the system. This is such a simple answer, but it is completely ignored for the simple reason that it cannot be made into law.

The symptom of Schwartz’s “excessive choice syndrome” is self-dissatisfaction and self-blame with the outcomes of our choices, due to the awareness of the alternatives. This is the symptom we want to minimise.

However, removing the choices so that you can blame someone else or the configuration of the stars on your unhappiness does not itself lead to satisfaction. An artificial reduction of choices does not lead to any less awareness of the alternatives. We feel disatisfied with not having the fancy sports car whether or not we actually have the choice of buying it.

If in a catastrophic event, society were returned to the technological and social structure of the middles ages, should we destroy all historical records of the wealth and abundance of earlier periods to avoid having to deal with the fact that we can’t choose to live that way anymore?

Of course not! And to any one who claims we should: Deal with it!

Recognise in this problem an opportunity for self-improvement. Cherish the fact that you are in control of your life and that there’s no one else to blame but yourself. Recognise that within the choices you have had, you have, almost by definition, taken the best you could within the time constraints. Do not dwell on the counterfactual possibilities.

Yes, ignorance is bliss, the traitor character in The Matrix film and Barry Schwartz agree. But for those of us who prefer to take the red pill, the secret of happiness is not having fewer choices, because that is not in itself a choice for us, but learning to not make a big deal out of not having obtained perfection.

There is a tradition in western philosophy to ignore, if not treat with scorn, eastern philosophies, probably associated to the fact that western philosophy finds it difficult to filter the mythological from the philosophical aspects of eastern traditions. But the best example of a teaching of the preferred solution to this “excessive choice syndrome” is  illustrated in this buddhist parable. It exemplifies beautifully why we must not dwell on past choices. [quoted from here]

A senior monk and a junior monk had to travel together.  As they were travelling, they had to cross a river.  The river was flooded due to copious rains in the catchment areas.  As the monks were attempting to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross the river.  The young woman asked if the senior monk could help cross the river.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder and crossed the river and let her on the other bank of the river.  The junior monk was very upset, as the monk hood demands that they not touch a woman.  However, as monk hood also demanded that he pay respect to elders, he dared not to ask the senior monk to explain his action.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks we are debarred from touching a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”.

The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”

2 thoughts on “The paradox of choice

  1. Hello, Eric! I read your article about the paradox of choice and enjoy a lot; mainly the Buddhist parable. However, I’m still not sure if the number of choices and freedom are correlated.

    See you!

  2. Hi Marcio! Thanks for the comment.

    Do you mean that you don’t feel that having more choices necessarily amounts to more freedom?

    I agree. Freedom isn’t being able to do anything you want. It is not feeling constrained to do what you don’t want, or to not do what you want. So whether or not more choice amounts to more freedom is relative to each individual and each situation.

    Lack of choice is certainly not lack of freedom if you don’t know of the possibilities. In the middle ages, not having the option of buying a pair of jeans wasn’t a lack of freedom. No one knew about jeans. I don’t feel I am not free to fly, I just feel I am not able to (although I wish I could).

    But in the modern world, not having the option to wear jeans at all (because you are constrained by some moral dress code, say), when you would otherwise want to, is certainly lack of freedom. Not having the option of flying out of your country if you want is also lack of freedom.

    Now of course there’s simpler ways of being free than having all possible choices available to you. If you don’t want something, you cannot feel constrained for not having it. If you don’t want to be able to choose between 200 pairs of jeans, you don’t feel you’re any less free for not having those choices. This way people can be free without choices.

    A world in which people didn’t care so much about having so much choice would naturally offer a balanced amount. Reduced demand leads to reduced offer.

    And if people care about choice, then let them deal with it. Having to cope with the excessive choice of modern world is good. It makes some people realise that they don’t need all of it, that excessive abundance doesn’t bring happiness. Without ever having to deal with disappointment, some people would never realise that life is not a journey to a point where we will be satisfied forever.

    When people realise that, we will naturally move towards a simpler and happier life, not because someone decided it was better for us, but due to our own free choice. This is the ideal.


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