Why only the best may be the worst optionWe live in a time of seemingly unlimited choices, from consumer goods to life decisions. We consider our freedom to choose as something nearly sacred. And we believe that the more choices we have, the better off we’ll be.
But we’re wrong, according to Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz. In “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More,” he argues that having too many choices actually leads to diminished satisfaction, even to depression, and can paralyze us from making a decision.
He cites a study of jam shoppers to illustrate his contention that having more choices isn’t more liberating. Researchers set up displays of either six or 24 varieties of exotic jams at a gourmet food store, where people could taste samples and were given a coupon for $1 off one jar.
But more options didn’t translate into more purchases. About 30 percent of those who saw the array of six jams bought a jar, compared to 3 percent of those who saw 24.
The increase in options leads to three related effects, he says: Decisions need more work before they are made, mistakes are more likely and the emotional toll resulting from a mistake becomes worse.
Schwartz divides people into two groups, maximizers and satisficers. The former want only the best and will go to great lengths to find it, researching and comparison shopping until they’re satisfied that all available alternatives are worse.
But it’s impossible to explore all options, and so maximizers end up wondering what they might have missed. Constantly thinking of the “opportunity costs” they incurred by passing up attractive alternatives detracts from their satisfaction with their choice or prevents them from making a decision at all.
For these people, Schwartz says, when the results of such choices end up being less-than-fulfilling, they tend to blame themselves, which leads to unhappiness and regret.
Satisficers, on the other hand, are happy with choices they see as good enough. Schwartz says they can have just as high standards as maximizers, but the difference is that satisficers are happy with the “merely excellent” instead of the “absolute best.”
Schwartz isn’t advocating the elimination of choice. Instead, he encourages consumers to become satisficers and to see some constraints as liberating, rather than limiting. It’s a refreshing, reasonable option, if counterintuitive, in today’s world.
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less
By Barry Schwartz
Ecco, 288 pp.
15,340 won or $13.95
by Sei Chong