Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Paradox of Choice

I’m reading, off and on, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore sociologist who maintains that we contemporary Americans are so inundated with choices, in everything from picking funds for our 401(k) to ordering a coffee at a Starbucks, that it’s driving us a little nuts; that it’s making us confused and anxious and even depressed. Instead of being a liberating force in our lives, choice can enslave us if we let it.

(I found this book in the remainder rack of our local bookstore. I told my shopping companion, “You know, I’m having a hard time choosing whether to buy this book because it looks interesting and is half-price, or buy another book, or put the money into my art-fair-dangly-earring-fund, or add it to my Roth IRA contribution this month. And all these choices are leaving me feeling confused and stressful.” “Oh, buy the book,” she grinned, “and that way you can let me read it when you’re done.” That’s what friends are for.)

Now, when people start hectoring about “too many choices” I tend to go into code orange mode. Because oftentimes the people doing the hectoring are the sort of fringe lefties for whom standing in line, ration cards in hand, outside Bread Dispensary Number 1 sounds like a beautiful day in the workers’ paradise – people who think the North Koreans just need to tweak their system a little to make it work really well; or else they’re social conservatives like the female commentator I once heard (under duress) on a Christian radio station advocating a return to arranged teenage marriages for girls, the better to rid the culture of all those unpleasant outcomes associated with letting women pick their own mates, fill their heads with dangerous book-learnin’and become immodestly engaged in worldly affairs instead of submitting graciously unto their husbands and baking cookies for the church bazaar while safely cloistered in the home. (Note: I have nothing against baking cookies, and in fact do it all the time…for church even. I bet that fact would blow this radio chick’s mind. Care for a snickerdoodle, sisterfriend?)

But Schwartz is not an idealogue. He simply suggests that thoughtful people can cut through the cultural clutter by practicing self-discipline; by developing a “gratitude attitude”; by thinking about opportunity costs; by rediscovering the concept of “good enough” and practicing what he calls “satisfice”; by not comparing one’s own life and possessions with others’. It’s the same commonsense approach to living in the world that’s echoed by the Decalogue and the Buddha and Jesus and your old junior high consumer ec teacher. It’s helpful to get a periodic reality-check update, and Schwartz does just that.

“The Paradox of Choice” is a pretty good book. Probably a better investment than the earrings. I think.


greg said...

Here's a data point for you. I was taking Integrated Circuit chip design classes last year, working on a Master's degree, and during one lecture the professor said "Engineers don't need more choices, they need *fewer* choices." It struck me as odd at the time, but I have come to appreciate it. One wants to have choices for the things that are important, and one wants not to waste time on everything else.

LutheranChik said...

And that's really Schwartz's point -- not that choice is bad per se, but that we really make life harder for ourselves by turning almost every decision into an epic quest to pick "the best."

Great line from The West Wing: "Why do you have to turn everything into a thing?"

*Christopher said...

I can't remember where I read an article by a Benedictine monk who was talking about this same thing; not bashing choice, but showing us that choices alone do not make us free, and in fact, too many can simply leave us overwhelmed and exhausted instead of focusing on giving thanks and praise for the simple things of life.

M.P. said...

When I think of "fatal" choice I think of a deer caught in a car's headlights. It may have several choices -- but choices by themselves won't save it. It must choose and accept the results of its choice. Pondering too long is nearly always fatal. For us, too many choices require too much reflection and too many decisions. We have limited time, attention, and resources. Life moves on and we must move with it. We only need enough choices to find a result which we can accept -- not necessarily the best possible of all results. Thank you for sharing this!

LutheranChik said...

Perhaps a more frivolous example of the joy of restricted choices: When I was a young adult I used to do most of my shopping at a small food coop in my neighborhood. I loved this place; shopping every week was an adventure, in part because I wasn't being inundated with food choices; the limited palette (or is that palate?) made it easier to think creatively about how I could use the foods that were in stock. And, ironically, I was much more experimental in trying new foods. It seemed to feed my hunter-gatherer instinct;-) much more than standing, say, in the aisle at Meijer's feeling positively overwhelmed.