The mechanics of option paralysis

A book review in the New Yorker by Christopher Caldwell of Barry Schwartz’s ‘The Paradox of Choice’

Schwartz looks at the particular patterns of our irrationality, relying on the sort of research pioneered by two Israeli-American psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. It turns out, for instance, that people will often consciously choose against their own happiness. Tversky and a colleague once asked subjects whether they?d prefer to be making thirty-five thousand dollars a year while those around them were making thirty-eight thousand or thirty-three thousand while those around them were making thirty thousand. They answered, in effect, that it depends on what the meaning of the word ?prefer? is. Sixty-two per cent said they?d be happier in the latter case, but eighty-four per cent said they?d choose the former.


Research in the wake of Kahneman and Tversky has unearthed a number of conundrums around choice. For one thing, choice can be ?de-motivating.? In a study conducted several years ago, shoppers who were offered free samples of six different jams were more likely to buy one than shoppers who were offered free samples of twenty-four. This result seems irrational?surely you?re more apt to find something you like from a range four times as large?but it can be replicated in a variety of contexts. Students who are offered six topics they can write about for extra credit, for instance, are more likely to write a paper than students who are offered thirty.


Nor is the ?paradox of choice? limited to the shopping aisle. It helps explain why so many people at age thirty are still flailing about, trying to choose a career?and why so many marriageable singles wind up alone. You await a spouse who combines the kindness of your mom, the wit of the smartest person you met in grad school, and the looks of someone you dated in 1983 (as she was in 1983) . . . and you wind up spending middle age by yourself, watching the Sports Channel at 2 a.m. in a studio apartment strewn with pizza boxes.

[and, after discussing one, solution, that of limiting choice, Caldwell discusses the extent to which consumers are already using their freedom of choice to choose, in effect, a limiting of their choices]

Robert Reich, in his recent book ?The Future of Success,? notes that modern consumers, like corporations, respond to the marketplace by ?outsourcing? choice. They hire experts?critics, in the old way of looking at things. While many experts, such as interior decorators, offer personalized service and charge a mint, the masses have access to choosing services that are essentially free. That, in effect, is what a ?brand? is.

One function of certain New Economy innovations is to make choosing easier by automating it. TiVo, in theory, allows television addicts to lose themselves in ever more programming choices, but it can also be used as a filter, a means of allowing viewers to dispense with choosing altogether. Internet grocery services, such as Peapod, allow shoppers to fill out a template that protects them from having to rechoose every week. In practical terms, the Peapod shopper is confronted with far fewer new brands and choices than was a suburban housewife pushing her cart down a grocery aisle during the Kennedy Administration.

[although this does look like one kind of solution i’m yet to be convinced that this is the way forward – the consumption of a tailored set of limited choices customised to my desires seems very limiting for the potential of human growth, certainly bad in terms of social capital (lots of bonding, no bridging in the terminology) and pretty sinister in implications for social control as well

but Caldwell is off to other terrain for the end of the review…]

…the phenomenon?sometimes called the ?hedonic treadmill? can also explain why disaster, whether bankruptcy or incapacitation, seldom burdens our spirits for very long.

Strangely, we lose sight of our human resilience when we make big choices. People are consistently puzzled that so many things they had dreaded?from getting fired to being ditched by a spouse??turned out for the best.? Gilbert and Wilson even speculate (in a diplomatic way) that our inability to forecast this adaptive capacity spurs some people to a belief in God. ?Because people are largely unaware that their internal dynamics promote such positive change,? they write, ?they look outward for an explanation.? A tendency to overestimate the joy we?ll get from buying baubles and winning honors is only half of a complex predisposition. The other half is our enormous capacity for happiness, even in the absence of such things. The surprise isn?t how often we make bad choices; the surprise is how seldom they defeat us.

[all book reviews should be like this!]