Choice Paradox

Now and then an author writes about something that starts off being counter-intuitive.  Barry Schwartz wrote the book, “The Paradox of Choice”, to address the misconceptions about the process of making a decision.  In most modern societies, it is perceived that having more choice is always better.  According to the book, the opposite is true.  There are quite a few reasons why.  “More choice” is a mantra that has been such a part of democracy and free markets that it will continue to be hard to see the wisdom of less choice.

Barry Schwartz starts his book by talking about all the choices available in a supermarket.  It is quite illustrative to hear about how many different items exist within specific categories.  Why is it necessary to have 200+ types of crackers?  The theory is that the consumer needs more choice to be happy with their selections.  The problem comes from not knowing which one to get.  Any kind of attempt to find the perfect cracker is doomed to fail given the widespread variety.  If a customer thinks that they are going to make the right choice if they invest more time is that much more unlikely to think that they have made the wrong choice since they have not tried all the alternatives.  Buyer’s regret (at some level) is bound to follow.  Even if the cracker is what they first wanted, they will be thinking that there is probably something better out there.

If there were only a few crackers available (like in a convenience store) it is much more likely that the choice will be fast and acceptable.  The buyer will still think that perhaps it would be better to have more choice but at least the lack of choice has made the selection process less stressful.

The assumption is that freedom equals choice.  Whereas this is true if there is no choice, it actually causes problems if the choice range grows too large.  Too much choice leads to paralysis (lack of action) and potential unhappiness.  If the choices are too close in nature and there are too many items to compare, the consumer is bound to react badly and not make any choice at all.  It is common for consumers to want the best product at the best price.  Unfortunately, this attempt to maximum the transaction comes at a high price in time and satisfaction.  It takes a great deal of time to compare potentially hundreds of items.  Also, at the end, the buyer is bound to think that one of the other choices should have been made.

In simple terms, people are only able to comprehend so many things at once.    It is estimated that people can only hold at most nine things in their short term memory.  This means, in general, once the number of things grows beyond nine, it is very difficult to process them.  Without the capacity to process more than a few items, it causes us to overload our capacity to find the right answer.    If anything, we need to filter out input to be able to see what we are really interested in.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to know what to filter as well.

Brian writes about how there are two types of people when it comes to choice.  One type of person will determine what they want ahead of time and use their criteria to analyze the decisions.  This can be categories as people that want something “good enough” for their use.  The second type of person wants the perfect solution.  They tend to spend much time comparing products and always doubt that they have seen the best.  In the pursuit for perfection, there is no perfect answer.  Tomorrow might bring a better answer and they will regret their choice almost as soon as they commit.

It the the second type of person (perfectionist or maximizer) that is going to be the most unhappy with their choices.  Regardless of how much time they spend on determining their best choice, they will typically find only disenchantment.  In the worst cases, it even leads to depression.  Because they are always seeking the best, they also are never satisfied with where they are.  The best is an idea that is always transient and heavily based on current state of mind.

Barry also asks the question about choices related to work.  In his TED video from 2005, he explains that modern technology has made it possible to work from anywhere.  So, the question becomes for the worker whether or not they should be working now.  That kind of decision causes stress for the people trying to maximize their careers.  They feel compelled to work beyond the boundaries of the workplace.  However, even when they are compelled to work, they still feel the pressure to have a family or private life.  Given that work is no longer location based, it makes it hard to restrict the choice about how the time is spent.  Citrix is one of the companies that makes it easy to work from anywhere.  Obviously mobile phones have a much larger impact on the ability to do work.  Having a laptop or similar device also plays a part.

So, when someone says that they want it all, they are really saying they want maximum everything.  The chance for happiness goes down considerably.  The reason why is fairly simple.  The person is always going to doubt their decisions.  This doubt will tend to create bad decisions that will lead to a downward spiral.  It is hard to walk the tight rope and be only focused on the end result.  You need to know where you are with the realization that your current self needs to focus not on what is to come but rather deal with the simple decisions that are happening right now.

It is ancient wisdom to understand that things should be caught when they are small.

Deciding is what our brains are built for.  Each decision leads to our specific future.  Our fear is that unless we spend more time deciding, we will have an unhappy future.  The truth is often that the best future for us cannot be foreseen from current choices.  Instead, the ego frets over different paths being completely blind to the option that makes the most sense.

In the movie, “The Matrix” there is a great deal of debate about what choice really is.  During one of the discussions, the Oracle proclaims that we can only see the through the choices that we understand.  Essentially understanding implies acceptance.  In other words, the ability to see your future is directly tied to the ability to accept what happens from your choices.  The movie takes it a step further and suggests that there is no such thing as choice (it is an illusion) and that the reliving of the choices is only for the sake of understanding.  How twisted is that?  Of course, this all fictional with roots in philosophy.  Challenges come from many sides and the results make us stronger people.

Within the business world, choices are made constantly.  As companies grow and influence increases, so does the cost of decisions that are made.  Eventually, the company will get to the stage where it stands to lose more than it gains from making aggressive choices.  This state leads to stagnation and even decline.  This model is true of nation-states as well.  Keeping in mind that technology is making it easier to generate “what-if” choices, this only increases the complexity of the environment.  Companies and countries that avoid risk will be paralyzed by choice.  Smaller companies have less to lose and have less options as well due to lack of money.  They do more with less and if they are successful, they will eventually replace those at the top.

Are rich people happy?  Well, they obviously can be.  As a whole, however, being able to have more choices (which can correspond to having more money) only leads to frustration.  Regardless of the expertise of the rich person, they are eventually going to run into choices outside their area.  Because of this, they would need to hire people to advise them and this means that there must be some kind of trust.

Which brings us to the last topic.  The choice to trust is probably the most important choice of all.  Without trust, we are islands in the deep ocean.  We decided not to choose because we do not have enough faith in either our own judgment or the judgment of others.  We sit stranded.  We are not going anywhere and as long as there are no bridges of trust, it will most likely remain that way.  It is easy to postpone an important decision simply because the damage is not obvious.  What we don’t know is that by not changing course we have already hit the iceberg.

The key to happiness is to accept the idea of “good enough”.  Instead of trying to find the perfect match, it is best to accept what you originally wanted.  Do not continue to think that there is something else better out there.  Perhaps there is.  That is not the point.  The main point is that if you always think that you can do better, you never will.  And, more importantly, if you accept the situation you are currently in, you are more likely to make choices that you understand and will bring you to the future you are meant to live (even if the ego does not agree).


Live near Brisbane, Australia. Software developer currently focused on iOS and Android. Avid Google Local Guide

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2 comments on “Choice Paradox
  1. Will says:

    Nice review covering an interesting facet of modern life.
    The interpretation of happiness is a problem which has existed forever. When determining the best choice, the factors a person considers important is everything. Considerations often include factors which are not relevant, at least directly, to the problem at hand (future-proofing).
    Providing a million solutions to a problem is not always the best path. IMO it’s equivalent to a brute force algorithm in which you must search through all of the permutations until you find the desired result. However, a counter argument could be that not enough choice encourages monopolistic dominion or worse no solution. What both approaches need to achieve is a simple way to find solution which provides a level of flexibility which meets the criteria of acceptibility for the largest possible acceptance. With countless choices, experienced and trusted critics assist in decision making. When few solutions are available, customisation of an available solution is used.
    Happiness can be considered in terms of complexity, efficiency, and enjoyment. A person’s happiness is determined by the amount of time they are able to do something they love doing. The less they love doing something, the less complex and more efficiently they want it to be dealt with so more time can be assigned to more enjoyable ventures.

  2. jeffreymuir says:

    Very insightful Will. I especially like your insight into how much time people are willing to spend. Not many people want to struggle with technology unless it is their passion.

    Balance seems to be the key to most dilemmas. Sometimes it seems difficult to see when things are out of whack.

    Thanks for the comment.

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