The paradox of choice – Barry Schwartz

when more is less

When we think about choice, we immediately tend to think that « the more options the better ». On the other hand, we’ve all lived this – awkwardsituation: opening our closet in the morning, desperately passing through our clothes only to say « I have nothing to wear »…. even though your dresser’s full.

Then the problem isn’t really « how much options are we faced with? » but « when are there too much possibilities to actually be able to make a – good enough – decision? »

This is one of the main purposes of Barry Schwartz’ book, TED talk, and many courses available online for us to read.

Today I’ll try to sum up the main ideas for you to discover his work

but first things first, here’s his ted

choosing is f*cking hard

does more really equals more?

This saying is well-spread in France, and I thought it illustrated well how Barry describes the relationship our societies drew between choice and freedom.

According to the author, freedom of choice is essential to wellbeing and freedom itself. So we naturally tend to associate « having more choice » to « having more freedom ». But what research shows is that the equation doesn’t always get it right. Indeed, by overloading our brains with information, we can actually confuse it and lead to different situations:

– Inaction, aka not choosing. In vocational, that’s typically what « good students » might do by going with the flow and following the path their grades leads to
– Bad choices, because if the quantity of options presented arises, we have to sacrifice some of our criteria to cope with the complexity we face
– A burden of constant regret since « we could have chosen better » or « we could have acted » – if the previously mentioned paralysis hit us in the gut

This bug is at the core of his work and today’s sum-up.

« When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive.

But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negative escalates until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize » Barry Schwartz, The paradox of choice (book)

ok, so what?

Among the many aspects of our lives impacted by this choice overload effect, Barry quotes the one that interests me the most: vocational orientation.

all aboard the panic train

A lot of us experience what we might call a « quarter life crisis » – the then-referred-to « mid-life crisis ». This phenomenon, which seems to have arisen with the millennial generation, a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation » by Alex Fowke (Wikipedia). Simply put, a quarter-life crisis is triggered by the process of adulting, aka entering the « real world ». When reaching your mid-twenties, a plethora of choices come to you.

Some of the (not so) fun questions, you can find: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What kind of activity do you see yourself doing? Defending which values? Who do you see yourself living with? Where?

This is quite confusing considering that up to this point we don’t really have much to choose apart from « do I want to get good grades? And if so, how might I get them? ». Adulting is the first time we actually have to make a decision that will influence the rest of our lives – or a big chunk of it.

but why millennials and newer generations?

Well, older generations weren’t faced with as much options as we are today. Our economies have developed, the internet has risen and every choice we have to make seems then more complex.

To push the reasoning even further, why would anyone want to choose anyways? We know that whatever we pick, there might be something better waiting for us somewhere.

The questions to focus on according to Barry are then

1. Are you a maximiser or a satisficer?
2. How does your final decision make you feel overall?

maximisers vs. satisficers

what are you talking about?

To Barry, there are two types of people. The ones who want to know they’ve made the best decision – the maximisers – and the others, who are willing to make a choice without looking back as soon as they find something that matches their criteria.

One of the examples he quotes in his book is: let’s say you’re going shopping. You enter a store, spot a nice sweater and try it on. The piece fits you nicely, you’re on your way to the cashier when you suddenly remember there’s this place down the road which is notorious for its bargains. If you’re a maximiser, you’ll want to check it out before buying the one you’re holding – no matter how flattering it might look, who knows what deals the other shop has to offer? You wouldn’t want to buy this sweater if there was an objectively better option somewhere near. On the contrary, if you’re a satisficer, you’re more prone to shrug, tell yourself your item fits your requirements, and buy it anyways.

The final point is: maximisers are willing to explore all the options available to them to make a(n absolute) good choice while satisficers choose not to care about the infinity of choice around. The latter can seem like vulgar settlers to the firsts. But choosing the option that matches your criteria doesn’t mean your standards are low. It just means that once you find a good enough option, you stop searching.

What’s strange – to me – is that if maximisers tend to objectively make better choices – and get more benefits from them –, they’re not necessarily happier. For Barry, it’s even the contrary.

and what am I then?

In his book, Barry had set up a series of questions to define which type you are. Depending on how many you score (you have to rate each answer from 1 to 7 depending on how much you relate to the situation) you’re one or the other.

Here’s a little sneak peak:
– « Renting videos is always hard, I never know which one to choose
I’m a big fan of lists that attempt to rank things (the best movies, the best singers, the best athletes, the best novels, etc.) »

and so on. (You can find the full test in the book The paradox of choice). You might have guessed it: the more you score, the closer you are to being a maximiser.

beware though

You might find yourself identifying more to one of the two options. But nothing is ever all black and white. Barry confesses that he relates more to the satisficer type of person – mainly because he’s quite fond of routines. However, he also admits being a maximiser in some of his life fields.

And, quite logically, we also behave this way. « If everything available to our senses demanded our attention at all times, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day » (The paradox of choice, book). So our brain builds shortcuts for our brain to rest and focus on stuff that matters – to us or that matters, period.

So don’t put yourself in a box too fast. Start by identifying what matters to you – for which you’re willing to go the extra mile maybe – and which decisions you might be ok to cut some slack off.

Some examples? For some like Steve Jobs, reducing the amount of decisions through the day included routines like always dressing the same. For others, it might be batch cooking in the week end to reduce food related decisions during the week, etc. Personally I’m also a fan of routines. My day is always orchestrated in the same way, allowing me not to focus on time or place of creating but rather on content creation. And since I’m really prone to maximising, routines help me not to fall into the indecision loop.

👉 For the french-speakers reading you can check this post on Our Millennials Today’s instagram account on choice overload

is happiness a choice?

In the end, if what matters is the feeling we have about our decision VS. how good it is, maybe we should focus on learning how to establish criteria to make better choices… according to us!

For me this is an essential skill to acquire, all the more since we’re heading towards a society where we’ll have to choose jobs we have never heard of before. I can often see around me that friends who tend to choose the « right » path – aka the more socially praised one giving you a great salary and status – is not always fulfilling. You gain more money, but you spend more as well – to sustain a new lifestyle in which you might not have much time to vent, which leads to depression and/or burnout.

And then, I see others who chose an option that might not be considered as – socially – prestigious, but matches their criteria – as in « I can eat at the end of the month and/or I can learn on an everyday basis etc. ». They, on the other hand, feel more fulfilled, engaged, and thus work harder to transform what might be an ok job into a great thing.

Because they made the choice that made them feel the best.

So let’s go trust our emotions rather than our rationality – not always but you get the point a little balance doesn’t hurt. Let’s try to be happy with « good enough » instead of exhausting ourselves to find « the best »

some resources to go?

👉 Barry Schwartz’ talk at Clermont McKenna College on the paradox of choice still. This is basically his book as a lecture. You can listen to it while getting your weekly miles swimming as if it were a podcast. Pretty useful!

👉 His TED talk on work

👉 Cialdini’s work on cognitive biaises to better understand how our brain builds new shortcuts to prevent overload

👉 The curiosity Chronicle’s series on cognitive biaises as well – quite exhaustive. Here for part I and there for part II

👉 My own article on cognitive biaises and how they might apply in a vocational orientation context

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