17 Mar 2016

Choice overload

2:11 pm on 17 March 2016

Why do too many options make us miserable? We asked Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice

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Photo: Illustration: Lucy Han

Illustration: Lucy Han

This Q&A is part of our two-week series on choices. Click here for more.  

Ten years ago, economic psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, and it struck a major chord. 

He argued that while the abundance of consumer choice in affluent societies may look like freedom, “we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically”. On the contrary, endless options can paralyse us with indecision and regret. 

I called Schwartz at his home in Philadelphia about the bestseller, which is poised for a 2016 re-release, and asked how its theories play out in this new era of algorithms and morphing social roles.

Thanks for talking, Barry. For people who haven't read your book, could you start by providing a rundown of its arguments?

Sure. So there’s an ideology that most industrial societies take for granted, and it’s that the more freedom people have, the better and that the way to have more freedom is to have more choice. 

Even if they choose well, they end up less satisfied. Because it's so easy to imagine that one of the options they rejected would have turned out better.

Now, that's totally reasonable, but empirically false. Because it turns out that for many people in many situations, rather than being freed up by choice, they're paralysed by it. They can't choose at all. So that's problem number one: paralysis.

Problem number two is that if the decision is at all complicated, they end up making worse decisions. Because it's hard for them to do all the information processing involved with so many options.

Problem number three is that even when they do manage to choose, even if they choose well, they end up less satisfied. Because it's so easy to imagine one of the options they rejected would have turned out better, even if that's not true.

So my thesis is that choice is good, but there can be too much of a good thing, and the trick is to find the sweet spot between having enough choice to find something you like, but not so much that you can't make a decision at all.

The additional thesis I have is that too much choice is especially challenging if your aim is to get the best. We call this ‘maximising’: ‘I want the best restaurant, the best cellphone plan, the best job, the best romantic partner’. If you only want a good enough one of those things, large choice-sets aren’t so devastating. As long as you find one that meets your standards, you just choose it, and you’re not looking back worrying about the hundreds [of options] you haven’t looked at. But if you’re out for the best, you have to look at everything. And that becomes just impossible.

Your focus has largely been on the endless options facing consumers, but this could apply to life decisions too.

Yes. There are now infinite options, and the web makes it easier to investigate all of them. You can sit in front of your computer and look at 5,000 different pairs of blue jeans.

So that’s the obvious domain, but I think it’s also true when it comes to romantic partners. People, especially in cities, are no longer restrained by the neighbourhood they live in. Thanks to Tinder, you’ve got every eligible person of whichever sex you’re interested in as a candidate. I think the result is that people have a harder time pulling the trigger to commit, and when they do meet someone they worry they could discover somebody better.

There’s this standup comedian, I don’t know if you know him Aziz Ansari?

I do.

You’re going through Tinder and rejecting and rejecting and rejecting, and you end up dying alone. It’s really a problem!

He interviewed me extensively for his book Modern Romance; there’s a whole chapter devoted to my story. He applies it quite deliberately to romance: How many possible matches are there? Ten thousand, twenty thousand, fifty thousand? You’re going through Tinder and rejecting and rejecting and rejecting, and you end up dying alone. It’s really a problem!

The same thing is true when you’re choosing a job. When you’re very talented at lots of things, the question is, 'What am I going to do with my life?' I find lots of college students simply take some job to pay the rent, hoping one day they’ll wake up knowing what to do with their lives.

Because they’re not able to pick a path?

They’re not able to pick a path! When you pick one path, all the other doors slam shut and that prospect is totally terrifying. So they do a job at Starbucks or something like that, because they don’t know what they want at 22. And then they hope that maybe when they’re 23 or 24 they’ll figure it out.

You’re professor of Social Theory and Social Action. What do you tell your students who are in this sort of limbo state?

You know, everyone’s different. But there are two things I tell them: first of all, and most importantly: good enough is nearly always good enough. You don’t need the best. If you can convince yourself of this, almost all the pressure associated with too many choices is diffused. 

But that’s hard when the [prevailing] ideology is: ‘Why would you settle for good enough, if a mouse-click away is possibly the best?’ It’s not easy for people to convince themselves that this is the most sensible path, especially when it comes to big decisions. You know, ‘I may not need the best jeans, but I certainly need the best job, or the best romantic partner.’

The other thing I tell my students is, choose when to choose. Often, when we’re faced with a decision, we can simply ask a friend who has made the same decision, ‘What did you get? Do you like it?’ And then get what they got; the same cellphone plan, for example. Is it the very best one for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good-enough one for you? Certainly yes.

You can’t do that with everything, but you can do that with lots of things. And I think people are increasingly doing this through online recommendations and reviews. The trouble is, these recommendations and reviews come from people they don’t know, so how much can you trust them?

They all contradict each other, too.

There’s that, also. There are 28 ‘fives’ and 22 ‘ones’...

Just when you think you’ve made a decision, you read ‘This is the worst restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in my life.’

Exactly. When my wife and I go away and we’re trying to book a room, that’s exactly what happens: five, five, five, one – alright, now what? Still, it’s better than nothing. And smart sites like Netflix, that get a sense of you as an individual from your past choices, can make recommendations tailored to you.

Do you see that as potential way through the choice paradox – increased focus by companies on intuitive, personalised recommendations?

Yes, but you have to be willing to give feedback about past choices. And you have to be willing to give up a fair amount of privacy. It doesn’t come for free. But it’s better than anonymous recommendations. I find, when when Amazon says to me, ‘People who bought this book also bought these ones,’ every book they mention is a candidate. An algorithm can actually point me in the right direction. 

So I think too much choice is a problem that can be solved – just at a price. Technology has created a problem, so technology can at least ameliorate, if not eliminate, it.

Through personalised curation.

Exactly. But it depends on our trusting that the curator has our interests, not just its interests, at heart. If it turns out that there are side deals with this hotel or that publishing company, the curation is now worthless.

I guess it's in their best interest to make it work, because when there’s too much choice people will often walk away not having made a decision at all.

Right. Or people walk away having made a bad choice. And if you make a bad choice, you don’t go back. You’re probably going to blame the site you chose from – ‘This sucks, this is a terrible product.’ 

You talk about self-blame in relation to choice overload, too. How do the two correlate?

I think that as the choice-sets get bigger, people are more inclined to blame themselves for making decisions that end up disappointing.

When the choice-set is limited and you choose something disappointing, you can blame the world: ‘What could I do? This wasn’t a good choice but there weren’t many options.’ 

But when the choice-set is unlimited and you choose something disappointing, you can’t say it’s the world’s fault. 'There were options out there, and I chose something bad, so it must be my fault.' So I think that as the choice-sets get bigger, people are more inclined to blame themselves for making decisions that end up disappointing.

You’ve suggested that choice-related self blame could even be a potential trigger for depression.

I think the problem is that when people start blaming themselves for bad decisions, what they’re doing is explaining what's disappointing in their lives in terms of their own personal responsibility. And that leads them to think: ‘I don’t know how to make decisions, I’m going to make another bad decision tomorrow.’ And that, I speculate, can lead down a path toward clinical depression. 

Or exacerbate existing depression, at the very least. 

That’s right. 

Do you think we assume endless options are good because we’re programmed, evolutionarily speaking, to overcome scarcity? 

That’s an interesting question... I think we certainly did not evolve to cope with the world as it is now.

When you were a hunter-gatherer, you didn’t have to choose between the green and the red food. If they were both there, you took them both, because you may not find another meal for three days. Now we’re all like little kids who go with their parents to the bank and the bank teller says, ‘Would you like a red lollipop or a green lollipop?’ And all the kid is thinking is, ‘Why can’t I have both?’ 

These are the kind of decisions we make in affluent societies, and I think we are evolutionarily completely unprepared for them. Day after day, hour after hour, we’re forcing ourselves to say no to something that’s attractive, [with the aim of] choosing something more attractive. I think that’s why we’re always looking over our shoulders, worrying we made a mistake: it’s unnatural to reject things we’re attracted to.

It creates unease. 

It creates a lot of unease, and a lot of second-guessing. 

Have you identified any personality types that are less equipped to deal with a lot of choice?

Well, we identified this one dimension that we call the ‘Maximising Dimension’. We developed a questionnaire and we called people who score highly on it ‘maximisers’. Maximisers are more likely to be plagued by large choice-sets because they’re looking for the best. The challenge for them is that they have to look at every option, otherwise how do they know the one they're choosing is the best? And that becomes untenable. 

Maximising correlates positively with things like perfectionism, not surprisingly. And it correlates negatively with optimism, wellbeing and happiness.

I read you reduced the workload you give your own students by 20 percent because they’re so preoccupied with making major life decisions.

Yes, in small steps, year by year. The students are no less talented or motivated than when I first started. What they are is preoccupied with other things that were just not matters of concern 40 years ago.

Such as?

These are really weighty issues. They should be devoting their time to figuring these things out. They just didn’t have to 40 years ago.

‘How important is my career in relation to my romantic life?’ ‘Do I get married now or later?’ ‘Do I start having kids now or after we’ve developed our careers?’

In some sense, these issues were always on the table. But there was such a strong default notion about how life was supposed to go. Virtually everybody followed the path of getting married and having kids early.

Now everybody struggles. At least in the circles that I teach in. There are no traditional ways now of organising your life that are not being subjected to scrutiny by young people as they enter adulthood. These are really weighty issues. They should be devoting their time to figuring these things out. They just didn’t have to 40 years ago.

Because roles were more prescribed 40 years ago.

Roles were prescribed, and families were stable. You just had to devote yourself to your scholarly pursuits. And then when you came out the other end of the tunnel as a grownup, you would start engaging in life fully instead of just academically. 

The students I see are up to their elbows in all of [these choices], from the day they arrive, and the result is that they’re willing to take a bad grade. So I just finally decided at some point that I would stop beating these people up and punishing them for not getting all the work done. They were just never going to get all the work done, as long as those other very legitimate concerns were occupying them. 

That’s quite kind of you.

Ha! There’s just not much point in making people feel bad because they’re not meeting some semi-arbitrary standard that I’ve imposed on them. But thank you for saying I was kind.

Finally, do you think the anxiety caused by too much choice is exacerbated by the ‘you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be’ parenting style? I think a lot of young people, from late teens to early 30s, were raised in that vein, which has made turning options down especially hard.

Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think the impulse behind this parenting style is completely understandable: you want your kids to be as empowered as possible; you don’t want them to think the doors are closed to them. But I think when parents tell their kids they can be anything, they’re telling them that they can be everything. And that’s just not true.