Book Review – The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

One of my favorite vendors at the farmers market had a wide selection of goodies this week–plums, cucumbers, soft persimmons, hard persimmons, figs, and more. On the one hand it’s awesome to have so much good food to choose from, and on the other hand it takes me a couple of minutes each time I go just to make a decision. Barry Shwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less offers some insights into the problems that can come from having too much choice and some ways that we can simplify our lives reducing the number of choices we have to deal with each day.

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Maximizing

One of the most striking things I learned is that I’m naturally a maximizer:

“Imagine going shopping for a sweater. You go to a couple of department stores or boutiques, and after an hour or so, you find a sweater that you like. The color is striking, the fit is flattering, and the wool feels soft against your skin. The sweater costs $89. You’re all set to take it to the salesperson when you think about the store down the street that has a reputation for low prices. You take the sweater back to its display table, hide it under a pile of other sweaters of a different size (so that no one will buy it out from under you), and leave to check out the other store…. Maximizers need to be assured that every purchase or decision was the best that could be made.”

Ahh, comparison shopping. I have on occasion spent more time researching vacation options than I would spend on the actual vacation. 😦

“Maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a purchase.”

Yup, one of my main reasons for getting involved in the Buy Nothing New project was because I was sick of buyer’s remorse. (Is that really not normal?)

“Maximizers savor positive events less that satisficers and do not cope as well (by their own admission) with negative events.”

Hrm, that sounds really bad. I’ve been working on it already though before even reading this book. Dealing with negative events will always be hard, but with gratitude journaling and enjoying the critters run around the garden it’s a lot easier to be happy.

“[P]erfectionists have very high standards that they don’t expect to meet, whereas maximizers have very high standards that they do expect to meet.”

😦 This is just getting worse, but it’s crazy how well this explains my character. I do have high standards and I really do get disappointed when I fail to meet them.

I have been on my own path to being less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer, though. That is, someone who will take the sweater if it meets all of her requirements and then, not sweat it. No second guessing. I chose the hard persimmons this week. They’re sweet and very refreshing when frozen and sliced. I don’t know how any of the other options would have turned out, but No Regrets.

See? Progress.

Adaptation

Knowing about Maximizers may not be relevant to you, but one thing that is relevant to everyone is adaptation. It could be adapting to positive experiences (like when your office starts providing fresh fruit for employees) or for negative experiences (like visiting a different city where that tap water tastes kind of weird). Whether positive or negative, it gradually becomes a new normal. And that’s worth factoring in when making a big decision worth busting out your pros/cons list.

“In 1973, 13 percent of Americans thought of air-conditioning in their cars as a necessity. Today, 41 percent do. I know the earth is getting warmer, but the climate hasn’t changed that much in thirty years. What has changed is our standard of comfort.”

If you take a job in a different city, sure it’ll be interesting for a while. But crazily enough, eventually you’ll get used to it. And it often doesn’t take as long as you might think.

“Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experiences doesn’t sustain itself.”

When my office runs out of fresh fruit, it’s just *grumble, grumble*. It’s no longer special. It’s something that I expect.

The same is true of folks who upgrade to a larger house with so much space that they think it’ll be the last house they’ll ever need. The empty space even requires buying more things to fill it up. Until at some point the house doesn’t feel so spacious anymore and they start dreaming bigger.

“Factoring in adaptation to the decision-making process may make differences that seem large at the moment of choice feel much smaller. Factoring in adaptation may help us be satisfied with choices that are good enough rather than ‘the best,’ and this in turn will reduce the time and effort that we devote to making those choices.”

Hedonism

What happens when adaptation goes to far? You keep expecting more and more, and you can never find happiness.

“We probably can do more to affect the quality of our lives by controlling our expectations than we can by doing virtually anything else. The blessing of modest expectations is that they leave room for many experiences to be a pleasant surprise, a hedonic plus. The challenge is to find a way to keep expectations modest, even as actual experiences keep getting better…. One way of achieving this goal is by keeping wonderful experiences rare.”

Anchors

Or as I prefer to call them, fake choices.

“One high-end catalog seller of mostly kitchen equipment and gourmet foods offered an automatic bread maker for $279. Sometime later, the catalog began to offer a larger capacity, deluxe version for $429. They didn’t sell too many of these expensive bread makers, but sales of the less expensive one almost doubled!  With the expensive bread maker serving as an anchor, the $279 machine had become a bargain.”

This is ridiculous! But after seeing it, I realize how common it is. It doesn’t always need to be a different product. Sometimes the anchor is the “list” price, which is then slashed by 10% or even steeper to make me think I’m getting such a good deal that I can’t not buy something.

Beware of price comparisons, and think of the true value to you.

Choice Paralysis

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Ketchup or catsup? Which is better?

Someone should have statistics on this but I’m not familiar with any so I’ll just make something up. If you’re anything like the average American, you’ll spend 892 hours in supermarkets during your lifetime just staring at shelves full of soups or something like that and trying to decide which to get.

Schwartz described an experiment done with jam-tastings at a supermarket. In one scenario, shoppers had 24 different choices of jam and after sampling 3% bought some. In the other scenario, shoppers had 6 different choices of jam and 30% of shoppers bought some.

Nope, choice doesn’t always make things better.

How to Deal With Too Much Choice

Almost everyone wants more choice, and in general more choice is a good thing. But just because a choice exists doesn’t mean you need to worry about always making the best choice. Schwartz states that it’s okay to just choose the soup that’s on sale or to choose the one that just happens to be directly in front of you. Hey, you have better things to be making decisions about.

“This is a very good thing. The burden of having every activity be a matter of deliberate and conscious choice would be too much for any of us to bear.”

In Summary

Use your power of choice where it really matters and the rest of the time accept any choice that satisfies your base requirements.

Manage your expectations. It’s natural to want new and shiny things, but take some time to realize that what you have is pretty darn awesome too.

Likewise, factor adaptation into your decisions. Something that seems shiny and new now probably won’t feel that shiny and new for very long. And thought a routine may seem tough now, you can probably get used to it. Recognize those things that will really matter in the long term.

 

And if you’re a little crazy like me, make a decision to not buy new stuff unless you really need it. Or resolve to only make planned purchases and wait a day before making a decision if you get the urge to buy something on impulse. Sure, there are a lot of choices to make besides purchasing decisions, but if you have the option to stop paying attention to advertisements it sure gives your brain a lot of extra space to think.

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