The Paradox of Choice

A couple weeks back, I watched the Barry Schwartz Ted Talk on The Paradox of Choice, and found it fascinating. He started by citing the official dogma of western civilization:

If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom.

He goes on to state that the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice we have, the more freedom we have, the more welfare we have.

That resonates with me. But how little I understand the human psyche was quickly revealed.

Mr. Schwartz continues by illustrating how all this wonderful choice we’ve been given has a paradoxical affect. We find it incredibly difficult to make a decision because the choice has a paralyzing affect as we strenuously evaluate our options. Once we are lucky enough to make the decision, we wind up less satisfied with our final choice. He calls this the opportunity cost of choice. Whenever we make a choice to do one thing, we are also making a choice not to do another. And if in the end we are not completely satisfied, we imagine another choice would have brought us greater happiness or pleasure. The opportunity cost of choice detracts from our satisfaction as we cannot resist the urge to think about the alternative options.

He drives that point home further by explaining that with so much choice, our expectations are artificially inflated. From all that choice, we expect perfection. On the contrary, when presented with only a single choice, our expectations are much lower. Now here’s the punchline! When given only a single choice, dissatisfaction is not our fault because we had no choice. But when given multiple options, if not completely satisfied, we tend to blame ourselves. Choice, believed to lead to happiness, in fact leads in the other direction. That’s paradoxical, no?

He concludes, perhaps jokingly, that the secret sauce to happiness is low expectations and that everything was better back when everything was worse. Or perhaps he wasn’t joking! Closer to the end of the talk, he told a simple story about his trip to the department store for a pair of jeans. The shopkeeper asked him if he wanted slim fit, easy fit, or relaxed fit? Button fly or zipper? Stone washed or acid washed? Boot cut or tapered leg? His reply?

I want the kind that used to be the only kind.”

Now that resonates with me. I’d encourage you to listen to the talk. I’m sure I’ve missed a few points. It’s just under 20 minutes and is time well spent.

Apologies. This entry has little to do with technology. Or does it?

BTW, the image was not created by me. I snagged it from the talk.

One thought on “The Paradox of Choice

  1. “…the secret sauce to happiness is low expectations…”

    Indeed! One of the most notable philosopher of the past century was Will Rogers who once made the comment that he never met a man he didn’t like. How? He just didn’t expect too much from people. Once you release yourself from the burden of expectation, everything gets better.

    Stop and look at the big picture, count your blessings, it could always be worse, etc. are all catch-phrases of this type of mentality. I would be interested in a scientifically based study on this effect.

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