Discover more from Jeremy Neiman’s Book Notes
The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
When Freedom of Choice Becomes Tyranny of Choice
“We get what we say we want, only to discover that what we want doesn’t satisfy us to the degree that we expect. We are surrounded by modern, time-saving devices, but we never seem to have enough time. We are free to be the authors of our own lives, but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write.’”
Do you find it hard to shop for yourself? Impossible to find the perfect gift for a friend? Do you struggle to pick a restaurant to eat at; and struggle again when choosing your order? When you have a free evening and can do a million different things, how often do you avoid a decision altogether and fall into whatever is easiest to do — watching TV or surfing the web? Do you constantly question whether you went to the right school, studied the right thing, or took the right job? Are you always thinking about what could have been or what could be instead of enjoying what you have?
Life in modern, affluent societies comes with an increasing number of choices across many aspects of our lives: More things to buy, shows to watch, types of food to eat, activities to do, careers to have, places to live and travel, people to date, information to sift through, doctors to visit and treatments to take, schools to go to and courses to take, whether to check work email after work, and so on.
Schwartz argues that this abundance of choices is making us worse off. How could this be? A new choice could be better for some people, but the rest could ignore it and be no worse off than they were before the new choice was added. And more choices mean greater autonomy and greater freedom, “But it is the cumulative effect of these added choices that I think is causing substantial distress,” Schwartz argues. The more options we have the harder it is to choose and the less satisfaction we feel with our eventual decision.
Why Options Make Us Unhappy
Trade-Offs (Opportunity Costs)
If all of these additional choices could be objectively compared then adding options should make people better off. But most of the time there are trade-offs with some options being better in some aspects and other options being better in other aspects. Should you spend your Saturday night visiting your family, having dinner with a friend, or staying home and playing a new video game? They all have benefits, they aren’t easily compared, and any choice you make means you are giving something else up.
Studies have found that people are reluctant to make trade-offs “because it is emotionally unpleasant to go through the process of thinking about opportunity costs and the losses they imply.” The more options, the more likely someone will avoid making the decision instead. Trade-offs can even make all the choices less appealing.
Even after we’ve made a decision we don’t put the rejected options out of our minds which makes us “feel less good about the option we choose than we would have if the alternatives hadn’t been there” in the first place.
The number of options exacerbates regret through two factors: an increased feeling of personal responsibility for bad results, and an increased ability to imagine positive counterfactuals. Regret affects both decision-making and how we feel after making a decision.
“Bad results make people equally unhappy whether or not they are responsible for them. But bad results make people regretful only if they bear responsibility...So although adding options may make it easier for us to choose something we really like, it will also make it easier for us to regret choices that don’t live up to our hopes or expectations.”
In a world with no or fewer options, we can't have as much responsibility for a bad outcome since we had little choice in the first place.
Imagining positive counterfactuals
“The more options there are, the more ‘if onlys’ you will be able to generate. And with each ‘if only’ you generate will come a little more regret and a little less satisfaction with the choice you actually made.”
How regret affects decision making
Regret aversion is making decisions with the prospect of regret in mind. We don't want to make a decision that we think will induce regret. For example, if you declined to join a gym when there was a membership sale, you might avoid joining it later at full price; the alternative, to join later for more money, would leave you no choice but to regret not signing up earlier. Therefore you continue to not join because it saves you from the regret you anticipate you’d feel if you did sign up.
“Very little in life turns out quite as good as we expect it will be…This ubiquitous feature of human psychology is a process known as adaptation. Simply put, we get used to things, and then we start to take them for granted...enthusiasm about positive experiences doesn’t sustain itself.” But “people seem generally unable to anticipate that this process of adaptation will take place. The waning of pleasure or enjoyment over time always seems to come as an unpleasant surprise.”
The abundance of choice exacerbates the problem of adaptation by creating a mismatch between the pleasure we expect to get from all of the effort we put into deciding and the pleasure we receive. More options mean more effort in making a decision. We expect that the extra effort we put into making the decision will make us happier with the results. Yet adaptation makes it so that we receive pleasure from a decision only for a short amount of time, regardless of the effort put into deciding. Thus, as the number of options increases, the costs of making the decision may begin to outweigh the satisfaction we get from the result.
How We Choose: Maximizers vs. Satisficers
There are two different approaches to decision-making: maximizing and satisficing. The former seeks to find the best option through an exhaustive search while the latter searches until finding an option that is “good enough” based on some set of criteria and standards.
We all maximize and satisfice to different degrees for different things. For example, I might satisfice when picking a place for lunch but maximize when buying a new phone. Some people, maximizers, are more prone to maximizing more of their decisions while others, satisficers, are more likely to satisfice.
Satisficers may do less well than maximizers on an objective basis — they bought a worse product or they got lower investment returns — but satisficers usually feel better about the decisions they make.
Engage in more comparisons than satisficers, both before and after they make decisions.
Take longer than satisficers to decide.
Spend more time than satisficers comparing their decisions to the decisions of others.
Are more likely to spend time thinking about hypothetical alternatives (opportunity costs) to their decisions.
Tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers
These behaviors make maximizers:
Experience more regret after a decision
Feel less positive about their decisions.
Savor positive events less than satisficers and do not cope as well (by their own admission) with negative events.
Take longer to recover after something bad happens to them.
You can see how an abundance of choices would make maximizers less happy. Yet, an increasing number of options can be a boon for satisficers because they're more likely to find an option that meets their standards but feel no compulsion to investigate all possibilities.
Included in the appendix post is a survey to assess where you fall on the maximizer-satisficer spectrum. “People with high maximization scores experienced less satisfaction with life, were less happy, were less optimistic, and were more depressed than people with low maximization scores. In fact, people with extreme maximization scores—scores of [30 out of 42]—had depression scores that placed them in the borderline clinical depression range.”
Additionally, included in the appendix at the end of the post is a regret scale survey. “People with high regret scores are less happy, less satisfied with life, less optimistic, and more depressed than those with low regret scores...People with high regret scores tend to be maximizers. Indeed, we think that concern about regret is a major reason that individuals are maximizers. The only way to be sure that you won’t regret a decision is by making the best possible decision” through an “endless, exhaustive, paralyzing consideration of the alternatives...For a satisficer, the stakes are lower. The possibility of regret doesn’t loom as large, and perfection is unnecessary.”
“When all the costs (in time, money, and anguish) involved in getting information about all the options are factored in, satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy. In other words, the best people can do, all things considered, is to satisfice.”
What To Do About It
We can better cope with the abundance of choice by being more intentional about when we choose, changing how we choose, and changing how we think about our decisions (both before and after).
When to Choose (and When to Automate)
“The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.”
We shouldn't always avoid choosing, but that time and energy should be saved for important decisions. Decide which choices matter and focus time and energy on those.
Automate unimportant decisions through rules and habits. Look for single decisions that remove hundreds or thousands of other decisions. Decide to create a rule or constraint that can avoid or automate future decisions.
Here are some tactical ways to reduce the number of decisions you need to make:
Unless you're truly dissatisfied, stick with what you have and what you know you like.
Sit back and let “new and improved” find you - through friends, family, etc.. You’ll still experience new things but without the decision fatigue.
Allow for serendipity - for example, don't fully plan out a trip ahead of time. This will help lower expectations (thus increase satisfaction).
Exercise: Review recent decisions you made, both large and small. Itemize the steps, time, research, and anxiety that went into making those decisions. How did you feel about that work? How much did your decision benefit from that work?
How to Choose
It follows from the previous section that Schwartz’s strongest advice is to become a conscious, intentional satisficer:
Establish standards for “good enough” so that you can shorten or eliminate deliberations. Stop your search once you’ve found an option that is good enough.
Reduce the number of options you consider. Decide ahead of time how many options are “reasonable” to investigate before making a decision.
Make decisions nonreversible. When we can change our minds, we are less satisfied because we can keep choosing and keep considering the alternatives. For example, treating your marriage as not reversible allows you to put your energy into improving it rather than second-guessing it.
Anticipate adaptation. If we don't acknowledge this natural process and have realistic expectations about how experiences change with time, we'll be less satisfied with the decision and regret or second-guess it.
Lower Your Expectations
“The secret to happiness is low expectations...The challenge is to find a way to keep expectations modest, even as actual experiences keep getting better.”
The more work you put into decision-making, the higher your expectations will be; so by reducing the time and effort you put in, as recommended above, you will implicitly lower your expectations.
Furthermore, Schwartz recommends keeping your expectations modest by making wonderful experiences rare. “No matter what you can afford, save great wine for special occasions. No matter what you can afford, make that perfectly cut, elegantly styled, silk blouse a special treat. This may seem like an exercise in self-denial, but I don’t think it is. On the contrary, it’s a way to make sure that you can continue to experience pleasure.”
What’s the point of great things if they don’t make you feel great?
Most things and experiences have both positive and negative aspects - by focusing on the positive we are less likely to regret our choice. You can even create downward counterfactuals - how could this have turned out worse?
I hope that this has helped you better understand the psychology of decision-making, why more options are often worse for us, and, no matter where you fall on the satisficer-maximizer spectrum, ways in which you can better cope with an abundance of choice.
I’ve created an appendix post that includes a summary of additional sections of the book that I didn’t find critical to understanding Schwartz’s thesis but were interesting nonetheless. It includes sections on how social ties are both limiting and beneficial; how social comparisons are harmful (especially to maximizers) and why we’re bad at making decisions. Also included are surveys to assess how much of a maximizer you are, and how prone to regret you are.