Free with all options: emptiness

The Paradox of Choice
October 1, 2004

The medieval French philosopher Jean Buridan will for ever be linked with his ass. Buridan's ass, so the story goes, was placed in front of two equally toothsome bundles of hay. Unable to choose between them, the ass nibbled neither and starved to death. That was 700 years ago: the downsides of having too much choice have long been apparent.

Barry Schwartz does not mention Buridan's ass in his fine book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less . This omission seems surprising, as Schwartz covers his subject thoroughly, exploring from all angles the difficulties and dangers that result from overloading people with incessant, countless and often impossible choices.

But the ass's absence is easily explained. Like many American social scientists - like many Americans, full stop - Schwartz seems sadly unaware that anything much happens, or has ever happened, in the world beyond God's Own Country. The Paradox of Choice concentrates almost exclusively on the US in the second half of the 20th century. Fortunately, this myopia matters less here than it usually does because the problems of choice are much more intense in the US today than they are anywhere else in the world, or have ever been before.

Schwartz's argument is deceptively simple. A spate of surveys has shown that as Americans have grown wealthier, with ever more freedom to do what they like, buy what they like and live how they like, they have grown less happy. Since 1960, the divorce rate has doubled, teenage suicide has tripled, recorded violent crime has quadrupled and serious clinical depression has increased more than threefold. More than a quarter of Americans now say they feel permanently lonely, about half of American executives say their lives are empty and meaningless, and one half of all affluent American children believe - almost unbelievably - that their lives are tougher than the lives of their parents were when they themselves were young.

The explanation of all this, Schwartz avers, is that people do not really enjoy the abundance of choices they now enjoy. This multiplicity of choices may seem insufficient as the prime cause of American society's general malaise. But Schwartz shows convincingly that Americans are beset with a tyranny of trivial - and not so trivial - decisions every day.

On the one hand, Americans have 175 salad dressings to choose from; on the other, they may have to choose between 220 university curricula on campus.

They have to choose between an almost infinite number of clothes styles, hundreds of television channels, numerous religions and sects, dozens of different ways to reshape their physical appearance, countless possible jobs, myriad different types of restaurants and menus, a plethora of disparate approaches to sex, to leisure and to medical care - to mention but a few.

This cornucopia of choice ought to provide humanity with everything it has ever wanted, and in some ways it does. But it brings in its wake a cornucopia of profound psychological difficulties. Making choices takes time, thought and effort. It provokes uncertainty before we choose and often brings regrets afterwards. It generates indecision, as it did for Buridan's ass, and it generates depression when we feel others are better at making choices than we are. It complicates social relationships, and it means we get less pleasure than we should from the things we do, as we worry whether we should have done something else.

Schwartz recognises that some people suffer from these problems more acutely than others. He divides Americans into two broad groups: maximisers and satisficers. Maximisers are those who worry most, who seek perfection every day and in every way, in everything they do. Satisficers are more relaxed. They want the best possible, not the absolute best, they realise decisions must sometimes be pragmatic, corners must sometimes be cut.

Throughout the book, Schwartz argues that the only way to be even moderately happy in the 21st century is to be a satisficer. But can maximisers transmogrify themselves into satisficers: have people any choice about how they make choices?

Schwartz believes they have. In the last, and weakest, chapter of the book he explains how we can all change the way we choose. While his analysis of the problems of choice is outstanding, the ways he proposes we deal with them are feeble. Any proposal that tells you to keep a notepad and pencil by your bedside is as naive as it is doomed.

But this is a relatively small nit to pick. Schwartz's theme could be encapsulated in the phrase "nothing is perfect", and The Paradox of Choice is not perfect - but it is pretty damn good.

Winston Fletcher is visiting professor in marketing, Westminster University, and chairman, Royal Institution.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Author - Barry Schwartz
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 265
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 06 000568 8

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