The Paradox of Choice

About the curse of too many options

The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz discusses the downsides of living in a world with too many options. Schwartz begins by detailing some areas in which we face too many options, such as shopping, health insurance, retirement plans, medical care, beauty, how to work, how to live, who to be. Schwartz goes on and introduces two different decision making types:

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Maximizers vs Satisficers

Schwartz distinguishes between two different strategies people follow to make decisions. Maximizers are people who only make a decision when they have considered all possible options, and are sure that they have picked the best one available. Satisficers on the other hand have a threshold for what they consider a good option, and settle for the first available option exceeding that threshold.

The problem with being a Maximizer

Schwartz lists several problem with being a maximizer, which I summarize here:

  • Considering all available options can take a huge amount of time and resources, that could be better spend actually enjoying life. Schwartz quotes an idea from psychologist Herbert Simon:

“When all the cost (in time, money, and anguish) involved in getting information about all the options are factored in, satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”

  • As the number of considered options increases, so does the number of attractive features associated with the rejected alternatives. There is no option that comes with all the attractive features. Each new option will add to the list of trade-offs I need to make when making a decision. What amplifies this effect is these trade-off will be perceived as losses, which weigh more than gains in our perception (as I discussed in my blog post on human decision making).
  • Schwartz has another argument against being a maximizer, which has roots in evolutionary biology. He argues that early humans did not have to face such a large array of decision as we do today. They went hunting, and ate whatever they managed to hunt. He also makes the point that babies don’t have to choose among options, but instead only have to face yes/no questions (“do you want juice?”).
  • Another argument against being a maximizer is the concept of adaptation: we simply become used to things, and then we start to take them for granted. What is worse is that we underestimate the effect of adaptation, which biases us toward being maximizers in decisions.
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On regret

Related to the question of how we make decisions is the concept of how we experience regret. Schwartz argues that regret by itself has an important function, which is to simply avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. However, it is important to understand that the emotion of regret is biased in several ways:

  • The more personally responsible I am for a decision, the more regret I experience if the decision turns out to be a bad one (responsibility bias).
  • The more easy it is to imagine an alternative scenario with a better outcome, the more regret I experience over a bad decision (availability bias).

The second point is related to another effect called omission bias: We regret actions that don’t turn out well more than we regret failures to take actions that would have turned out well. Schwartz goes on and argues that omission bias only holds in the short term; in the long term however, we regret inaction more than action (e.g. “I should have traveled more when I was younger”).

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How to choose

Schwartz concludes with several recommendations for making decision, some of which I summarize here:

  • Choose when to choose. Given a decision, decide whether to be a maximizer or a satisficer. This is also called “second order decision”, a term coined by lawyer Cass Sunstein.
  • Be a chooser, not a picker. Shorten deliberations about decisions that are unimportant to you. Use some of the time you’ve freed up to ask yourself what decisions really matter.
  • Satisfice more and maximize less. See the above points why.
  • Make decisions non-reversible. This will reduce regret.
  • Anticipate adaptation. No matter what you choose, you will get used to it.
  • Learn to love constraints. View limits on possibilities we face as liberating, and not constraining.

(Note: this article originally appeared on my blog)

I write about Science, Technology, and Math. My background is in Physics.

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