By Chris | November 22, 2009
A friend of mine, an aspiring ecologist with a blog of his own, sent me a link to Barry Schwartz’s 2005 TED talk on the paradox of choice. Schwartz, a psychologist, has written a book with the same title that I have not read. The video is entertaining and thought-provoking. Schwartz argues that too much choice paralyzes us and makes us worse off. He focuses on the four main consequences of too much choice.
- Regret and anticipated regret
- Opportunity costs
- Escalation of expectations
When we have too much choice we regret what could have been, expect more from what we choose, and blame ourselves when our expectations are not met. His talk reminds me of going to buy snow cones in the summer with my sister. There are hundred of flavors to choose from, many whose names provide little indication of their taste. It’s always very difficult to decide. But, as easy as it is to relate to Schwartz examples, I strong disagree with his conclusions. What follows are some of his claims that didn’t sit well with me:
1. “It’s not possible to buy a cell phone without bells and whistles.”This is a minor point, but it bothers me. I use an LG VX3300 that I bought used on eBay for $10. It doesn’t have a camera, it can’t play MP3’s, and it won’t connect to the internet. Secondary markets like eBay expand our choices to products of the past. Moreover, even some new phones are tailored to those with basic needs. A quick search yields a list of no-frills phones. My point is that people who don’t want products with many features (choices) can easily find more basic alternatives.
2. “Escalating expectations means you will never be pleasantly surprised.” It does not follow that more and better choices will lead to consistently high expectations. Eventually, people will be let down and adjust their expectations accordingly. People’s expectations are a function of how surprised they were in the past, not the quality of the product itself. It’s impossible to consistently be surprised or consistently be not surprised. If people are never pleasantly surprised, they will lower their expectations and voila! they will soon be pleasantly surprised again. We should only expect surprise to decrease if the variance of product receptions decrease. If anything, the reception of new products is less predictable than ever.
3. “Income redistribution is a Pareto improvement.” Schwartz implies, but never explicitly shows, that less income means less choice. This appears to be a reasonable assumption because if I have less money I can’t buy as many things. But the problem isn’t choice per se, it is choices that leave us with regret and self-blame. These type of choices are more prevalent among poor. Should I buy food for my family or a mosquito net to protect against malaria? That’s breeds much more regret than “Should I buy an iPhone or a Blackberry?” Even marginally less income means marginally greater regret. The middle class family that buys an unreliable car will lament that a better automobile choice would have left enough money for a vacation to the ocean.
Another concern I have with Schwartz’s argument is that we aren’t willing to apply it to other areas of our lives. For example, would anyone prefer a smaller pool of potential marriage partners? Would you voluntarily confine your potential spouses to those in a specific city, state or country? It would be foolish to do so. The plethora of choice when it comes to marriage is daunting. The abundance of options may destroy the romantic notion that there is only one person out there for you. It may cause you to think back about what might have been after you’re married. But, most of us happily trade the increased likelihood of regret for the additional choices that ultimately match us to a more suitable spouse.
Lastly, people always have the option to voluntarily reduce choice. If you buy Schwartz’s argument, why not voluntarily give away much of your money and live a simpler life. I would applaud you. However, reducing other people’s choice through government coercion isn’t okay just because its done for their own good.
People aren’t completely rational. And choices in the world can be daunting. But, freedom is valuable even if it occasionally leads us astray and unsatisfied. We gather more information, adapt, cope and learn to place less emphasis on what could have been. When I buy snow cones with my sister I get a fuzzy navel (peach) and don’t dwell on whether I should have gone with the Eye of the Tiger (who knows what it tastes like) instead.
Schwartz begins his speech by noting that everyone is familiar with the benefits of choice, so he’ll focus on the disadvantages. However, he never comes full circle to weigh the benefits against the costs. Freedom and variety allows us to create the life we want, with the people we want, doing the things that will make us happy. Sorting that out can be messy, but it’s a burden I’m happy to bear.