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The paradox of choice

  1. Dec 14, 2009 #1
    Is more choice better? Ten years ago the answer seemed obvious: Yes. Now the conventional wisdom is the opposite: lots of choice makes people less likely to choose anything, and less happy when they do choose.

    In the The Paradox of Choice, Psychologist Barry Schwartz discusses the phenomena of "maximizing" and "satisficing." Maximizers tend to settle and strive only for the best choice.

    View video on TED: Talks Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice

    In Schwartz's estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.

    In wikipedia : The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

    When product choice becomes overwhelming to customers, they become subject to the "paradox of choice." It can become overwhelming for the common consumer.

    In Schwartz’s definition, “maximizers need to be assured that every decision was the best that could be made. Satisficers settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.

    Obviously, having no choices at all can make life unfulfilling.

    In the Financial Times, Tim Harford seems to contradict "The Paradox of Choice":
    Read the article : Given the choice, how much choice would you like?

    So which is it? What is better for the consumer and more sustainable: two alternatives, three, or a large number of choices?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 14, 2009 #2


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    I think the model in which the paradox is formulated is flawed.

    Firstly choice presupposes knowledge about outcomes and part of the "choice paralysis" comes not from too many options but too little information about the distinctions between options. One is faced with blind choices.

    There is then the meta-choice of how much time and energy to expend obtaining knowledge about available choices.

    I think the formulators of this "choice paradox" are oversimplifying the assumptions. With a sudden growth in choices due to recent innovation there is no longer the historic knowledge that the chooser can use in his judgments. Add to this the precession in the feedback of consumer wants to corporate choices and you get a spiral toward optimum with which the consumer grows impatient and unhappy.

    In the consumer setting if we could sit down and say buy a cell phone or computer based on tweaking each parameter, i.e. how much memory and processing speed, how reliable the parts are, how compact, and so on with the price displayed as we "twist the knobs" then you'd find no choice paradox. Rather in current consumer setting one is faced with artificial packages which the consumer must first purchase to learn the consequences of their choices. These artificial packages are in part the result of the corporate provider likewise being ignorant of what choice offerings they must make to optimize their own revenue.

    They default to corporate policy of maximizing short term gains by constant pseudo-innovation rather than offering direct quality choices to the consumer. You then see maverick companies (e.g. Apple with their ipod and iphone) offering true innovation (with the ability to charge much higher prices since they are alone in the quality offering). Over time others mimic and the consumer choices become better.

    My sister loves her iphone and has no regrets. I've gone through nearly all the major cellular service providers, dissatisfied with each in turn but not for the plurality of my choices among them but by the lack of choice in purchasing only the features or amount of service I actually want. I can't get the features I want without buying ten times the talking hours I will ever use. The price for pay as you go are artificially high to push me into the packages. It's like having to buy 15 loafs of bread a month or pay $5 per loaf. But that will change over time as the companies saturate coverage (main competitive issue) and start having to compete on service value.

    We are in a huge transition period where innovation is so quick that informed choice is nearly impossible. Eventually we shall hit another wall as limiting factors are reached and mapped and true optimums can be rediscovered. When that occurs the number of immediately available choices will be reduced as the generally inferior choices are simply no longer offered. What will remain will be optimized ridges of cost vs quality, features, and degree of reliability with only slow progress in actual innovation as one is faced with diminishing returns but with major "innovations" being fashion, fad trends.

    In summary it is not a choice paradox but an information vacuum.
  4. Dec 14, 2009 #3
    I think that the Long Tail is a good rebuttal of the paradox of choice.
  5. Dec 15, 2009 #4


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    Great link. Helps me better understand (one of my pet peeves) the explosion of seasoned tomato products (mainly paste and diced tomatoes). Now instead of picking my favorite (or the cheapest) of say 4-5 brands I have to hunt through 15 or so varieties from the two main producers. I hate it. I want plain tomato paste, no "roasted garlic" no "basal and herbs" just the plain stuff. I'll add my own spices. But NOoooooo!! I gotta hunt or if I'm in a hurry accidentally flavor my chili with basal and oregano because I didn't pay close enough attention to the can I grabbed. (Pisses me off to no end!)
  6. Dec 15, 2009 #5
    I have to agree with Jambaugh. Lack of information is key to the issue.

    With choice comes responsibility and people tend not to like having responsibility. Its a lot easier to have others make decisions for you, primarily because if something goes wrong its not your own fault but someone else's. You can not have freedom of choice without the consequences of poor or unfortunate decisions.
  7. Dec 15, 2009 #6
    Not only responsibilities, but also a 'tool' that is available to all of us -- that tool is a filter.

    Our intellect is a filter. Another example of a filter is the web search, the different sites and forums where we debate issues and discuss services and products.

    The Long Tail or long tail shows us that hundreds or thousands of choices can be a good thing, as long as we have ways to filter and order our options. We only need to reduce the data overload bringing it in line with our expected utility from the decision. Thus, avoiding any 'paralysis' or 'brain freeze'.

    Imagine this wasn't true. Then, all the stuff for sale online would be a total failure -- stuff such as the iPod and iTunes, as well as Amazon, eBay, Graiglist, WalMart Discount Books, Oprah's Book Club, and other e-Tail movement would not have existed.
  8. Dec 16, 2009 #7
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  9. Dec 16, 2009 #8


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    If "happiness" were the goal we'd all be on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soma_%28Brave_New_World%29" [Broken].

    I fear this sort of "paradox of choice" research is an attempt to rationalize some sociopolitical agenda e.g. socialized medicine or technological regression. Just wait and see if this idea doesn't get used to "justify" cap-n-trade when the proponents can no longer argue that we can just "green power" our way out of our energy demands without cutting our standard of living drastically. I mean we're seeing a reference to a popular book rather than discussions of a peer reviews academic paper.

    I'd like to see the details of the studies to see what kind of "choice comparisons" were made and how the participants' "happiness" was measured.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  10. Jan 24, 2010 #9
    I think Dan Gilbert sums it up pretty well. Freedom is the antithesis of synthetic happiness
  11. Jan 24, 2010 #10
    Dan Gilbert also said that we have a tendency to manufacture our own happiness ... it is a coping mechanism, and it can be a liability as well, because it can undermine our motivation for action.

    I'm not sure if this is always true.
  12. Jan 24, 2010 #11
    So, how does one come about "motivating" himself to action, when he knows by heart that he can always synthesize his own happiness no matter what?
  13. Jan 26, 2010 #12
    I think in practice the phenomenon is true for many people. I have the feeling that there are just too many things you can do in your leisure time so people have to pick a few activities and can't do others. That makes some people unhappy and dissatisfied.
  14. Feb 2, 2010 #13
    Yup. "Too many choices will just make you unhappy, so just do what I say."
  15. Mar 28, 2010 #14
    If anyone remembers the show, Fragile Rock, there's an episode where Wimbly wants to stop wimbling (wimbling basically means that he is indecisive and whiny) so he gets a magician to cast a spell that makes him decisive and self-confident. Suddenly he gets lots of control over his life and social power, but his friends don't like it so they go to the same magician to come up with a way to get him "back to his old self." The recipe to get him wimbling again is to confront him with many difficult choices, such as whether he wants ice cream or cake. He likes both so he doesn't know what to choose, and this makes him indecisive and socially docile again.

    I think that the problem isn't too much choice, though. It's that many people lack a compass or reasons to select some choice over others. Economic rationality makes choice pretty easy. As a rational consumer, you're job is to save as much money as possible while maximizing the value you get for the money you spend. Still, this requires a compass for deciding what is value and what one thing's value is relative to another with regard to price difference.

    That is hard for many people, because they don't actually know what value is. The reason they don't know is because they don't have an independent sense of authority or even self. Their major economic project is to try to gain social approval by making choices that will be validated by some external authority. They fear exercising their own independent authority out of the risk that they could come in conflict with some other authority. Democracy (checks and balances among different authorities), in other words, is their worst fear.

    If people would just generate a starting point for what they consider valuable, they would have a compass for making choices and the rest of the process of self-development would happen as they experiment with various choices and their budget. The problem is that on the other side of the equation are profiteers eager to exploit their relative naivete and need to develop a sense of values and self.

    Too much choice is not the problem. The problem is the fear of what the consequences of choosing wrong are. The solution: begin with only what you need and choose the best price-quantity ratios (supermarkets display price-per-unit prices, which let you compare different brands and sizes of containers). Once you've established a baseline of what the quality is at the lowest price, you can choose higher priced items and compare the value and the price difference.

    When you get really advanced, you can go beyond selective shopping to actually considering how much profit is being extracted from your consumption purchases by estimating how much materials and labor cost to produce the good you're buying. Then you can think about how much you can save/profit by substituting something you buy with something you make or recycle yourself.
  16. Apr 11, 2010 #15
    On some level, nearly all actions are motivated by a desire for happiness.
  17. Apr 11, 2010 #16
    I don't know if it's permitted to quote at length on this forum, but this is the wiki entry for "the death drive," according to Freud:

    I only question the part of this description where eros is referred to as a "tendency toward cohesion and unity." It could be generalized, I think, as the drive to pursue, generate, or increase life and vitality. I don't know what that has to do with cohesion and unity except maybe in fascist theory.
  18. Apr 11, 2010 #17
    Even destructive actions when undertaken are done so to increase an individual's happiness (at least that is the ultimate theoretical motive.)
  19. Apr 11, 2010 #18
    That's a good point, and true for many instances where people are engaged in destructive activities. But I think there are actually moments when people get irritated with the whole idea that they should want to be happy and positive and they actually long for sadness, pain, negativity, etc.

    Could you say that being sad is what makes someone happy at a particular moment? I guess so, but how can you be happy that you're sad? If you're sad, you're unhappy - that's what sadness is. It seems more accurate to say that someone wants or desires to be sad than to say it makes them happy. Freudianism is handy here, because Freud talks about "desires" and "drives," which aren't necessarily conscious or rational.

    What about someone who commits suicide? Maybe they think that there is an afterlife where they will be happy, but there's a good chance that they just want to destroy themselves to get their misery under control. Control is part of the death drive, I think, because it involves exercising limitation and repressing free expression, which tends to result from libidinal energy.
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