Discover more from Jeremy Neiman’s Book Notes
The Paradox of Choice: Appendix
Included here are other notes that, while interesting, I didn’t feel were critical to understanding Schwartz’s thesis which I presented in the main post.
Social Relations Reduce Choice And Increase Happiness
Schwartz argues that it’s both that increasing choice leads to weakening social ties and that weaker ties lead to increased choice. "Time spent dealing with choice is time taken away from being a good friend, a good spouse, a good parent, and a good congregant." And "establishing and maintaining meaningful social relations requires a willingness to be bound or constrained by them, even when dissatisfied. Once people make commitments to others, options close."
Schwartz cites The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies: “We are paying for increased affluence and increased freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of social relations. We earn more and spend more, but we spend less time with others. More than a quarter of Americans report being lonely, and loneliness seems to come not from being alone, but from lack of intimacy. We spend less time visiting with neighbors. We spend less time visiting with our parents, and much less time visiting with other relatives."
“Depression among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is less than 20 percent of the national rate. The Amish are a tightly knit traditional community, one in which social ties are extremely strong and life choices are rather meager. Do the Amish have less control over their lives than the rest of us? Undoubtedly yes. Do they have less control than the rest of us compared to what they expect? I think not. How much do they suffer psychologically from the constraints imposed by community membership and its attendant responsibilities? My suspicion is that they suffer rather little. Viewed from within Amish society, where expectations about individual control and autonomy are very different than they are in mainstream America, community membership doesn’t entail much in the way of personal sacrifice. For the Amish, the unease that the rest of us may feel at the prospect of significant communal obligation is largely absent. It’s just the way things are—for everybody. By elevating everyone’s expectations about autonomy and control, mainstream American society has made deep community involvement much more costly than it would be otherwise.”
On the flip side, social comparisons can be harmful. When people evaluate experiences they do so through comparisons to what they hoped or expected the experience to be; comparisons to past experiences; and comparisons to what they (think) others have. Social scientist Alex Michalos found that variation in life satisfaction could be explained not by objective differences, but by differences in perceived gaps in these comparisons.
Broadly, it would be better if we could avoid social comparisons. Comparing yourself to people who you perceive as better off (upward comparisons) "produces jealousy, hostility, negative mood, frustration, lowered self-esteem, decreased happiness, and symptoms of stress.” Although “downward comparisons have been found to boost self-esteem, increase positive mood, and reduce anxiety."
However, this isn't always the case. Downward comparisons may make you feel “guilt, embarrassment, the need to cope with other people’s envy or resentment, and the fear that their fate could happen to you." And for cancer patients, upward comparisons "about other cancer patients who were in better shape improved the mood of cancer patients, probably because it gave them hope that their condition also could improve."
Yet it's impossible to completely ignore social comparison while living in a society in which there are "goods" that are "positional" (goods that are scarce and you're more likely to get based on your position in society). Not everyone can go to the best school, have the best job, or live in the best neighborhood. But competing for those goods is a zero-sum game in which everyone works harder and is more stressed, but we're not better off relative to each other.
"Parents wanting only the best for their child encourage her to study hard so she can get into a good college. But everyone is doing that. So the parents push harder. But so does everybody else. So they send their child to after-school enrichment programs and educational summer camps. And so does everyone else...It’s like being in a crowded football stadium, watching the crucial play. A spectator several rows in front stands up to get a better view, and a chain reaction follows. Soon everyone is standing, just to be able to see as well as before. Everyone is on their feet rather than sitting, but no one’s position has improved. And if someone, unilaterally and resolutely, refuses to stand, he might just as well not be at the game at all. When people pursue goods that are positional, they can’t help being in the rat race. To choose not to run is to lose."
While it might be impossible to ignore social comparison, not everyone is affected by it to the same degree. Maximizers and unhappy people are more affected by social comparison than satisficers and happy people.
One study on how people are affected by social comparison had people solving anagrams next to someone who already knew the answers and thus appeared to be better. Maximizers experienced "both a deterioration of mood and a lowered assessment of their anagram-solving ability" while there was no impact on satisficers.
"When maximizers and satisficers were asked questions about how they shop, maximizers reported being much more concerned with social comparison than satisficers did. They were more attentive than satisficers to what other people were buying, and more influenced in judgments of their own satisfaction by the apparent satisfaction of others…Maximizers want the best, but how do you know that you have the best, except by comparison?"
Additionally, social comparison information has relatively little impact on happy people. "Happy people have the ability to distract themselves and move on, whereas unhappy people get stuck ruminating and make themselves more and more miserable."
We’re Bad at Making Choices
Schwartz discusses several ways in which we’re bad at making decisions and the worse we are at making decisions, the more likely we are to make a mistake when the number of options increases.
Our memories of past experiences are almost entirely determined by just two things: how the experiences felt when they were at their peak (best or worst), and how they felt when they ended.
A study by Daniel Kahneman found that patients rated colonoscopies less unpleasant if they were given a colonoscopy "plus". "Plus" meant that at the end of the procedure, instead of taking the camera out promptly, the doctor left the camera in place, unmoving for an additional 20 seconds. While the extra time was still uncomfortable, it was less so relative to the rest of the procedure. The "plus" group rated the procedure overall as less unpleasant and was more likely to comply with a follow-up 5 years later.
Another study tested this on vacations and found that while the "end" happiness wasn't a great predictor of remembered happiness, the peak was still important, and, notably, the length of the vacation didn't matter. This implies that you could get as much pleasure out of a shorter vacation as a longer one.
"It seems that neither our predictions about how we will feel after an experience nor our memories of how we did feel during the experience are very accurate reflections of how we actually do feel while the experience is occurring. And yet it is memories of the past and expectations for the future that govern our choices."
Our beliefs, which drive our decisions, are influenced by the frequency and vividness of the information we receive. For example, we tend to give much more weight to anecdotes than statistics. If our friend had a bad experience with a product, it would likely override thousands of positive reviews, even from a trusted source.
A study found that the frequency of newspaper coverage of different causes of death and survey respondents' estimates of the frequency were almost perfectly correlated. "People mistook the pervasiveness of newspaper stories about homicides, accidents, or fires—vivid, salient, and easily available to memory—as a sign of the frequency of the events these stories profiled."
How much you spend on something -- how much you believe it's worth -- depends on the prices of similar items.
One example was a catalog selling a bread maker for $279. They later introduced a 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."
"Anchoring is why department stores seem to have some of their merchandise on sale most of the time, to give the impression that customers are getting a bargain. The original ticket price becomes an anchor against which the sale price is compared."
The following scale differs from the original 13-question scale that was presented in this book. This is a 6-question subset of the original that a later study found to be more accurate with a slight change: I substituted a question about renting videos with a similar one about clothing shopping. Furthermore, if you don't listen to the radio or watch TV, imagine those questions are about streaming music and videos. (The original scale was made in 2002.)
Write a number from 1 (completely disagree) to 7 (completely agree) next to each question. Now add up these six numbers. Your score can range from a low of 6 to a high of 42. If your total is 30 or higher, you are clearly on the maximizing end of the scale. If your score is 18 or lower, you are on the satisficing end of the scale.
When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to.
When I watch TV, I channel surf, often scanning through the available options even while attempting to watch one program.
I often find it difficult to shop for a gift for a friend.
When shopping, I have a hard time finding clothing that I really love.
No matter what I do, I have the highest standards for myself.
I never settle for second best.
In addition to the above, Schwartz found that maximization scores were highly correlated with the following that assesses how prone you are to regret. To score yourself on this scale, just put a number from 1 (“Disagree Completely”) to 7 (“Agree Completely”) next to each question. Then subtract from 8 the number you put next to the first question, and add the result to the other numbers. The higher your score, the more susceptible you are to regret.
Once I make a decision, I don’t look back.
Whenever I make a choice, I’m curious about what would have happened if I had chosen differently.
If I make a choice and it turns out well, I still feel like something of a failure if I find out that another choice would have turned out better.
Whenever I make a choice, I try to get information about how the other alternatives turned out.
When I think about how I’m doing in life, I often assess opportunities I have passed up.