This is my book summary of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (by Barry Schwartz). Whether you agree or disagree with the conclusions drawn, there’s a lot to think about here. I enjoyed the real-life examples and practical advice dished out at the end. The book is available on Amazon.
Summary notes below. All emphasis mine.
With limitless choice, we produce better results with our decisions than we would in a more limited world, but we feel worse about them.
When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of choices increase, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.
There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives. It enables us to control our destinies and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation.
The fact that some choice is good doesn’t mean that more choice is better.
I will argue that…
- We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
- We would be better off seeking what is “good enough” instead of seeking the best.
- We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
- We would be better off if the decisions we made were non-reversible.
- We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.
When given free samples of jams in a store, 30% of people exposed to 6 jams bought a jar. Only 3% of people exposed to 24 jams bought a jar.
A large array of options discourages customers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide.
Thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one.
When experiencing dissatisfaction on a shopping trip, consumers are likely to blame it on something else (salespeople, traffic, prices) – anything but the overwhelming array of options.
Could readers be attracted to a magazine that offered to simplify their lives by convincing them to stop wanting many of the things they wanted?
A majority of people want more control over the details of their lives, but a majority of people also want to simplify their lives.
Most people feel they lack the expertise to make decisions about their money by themselves.
Patients prefer to have others make their decisions for them. 65% surveyed said if they were to get cancer, they’d want to choose their own treatment. But only 12% of people with cancer want to do so.
We always think we want choice, but when we actually get it, we may not like it.
The burden of having every activity be a matter of deliberate and conscious choice would be too much for any of us to bear.
Most good decisions involve these steps:
- Figure out your goals
- Evaluate the importance of each goal
- Array the options
- Evaluate how likely each of the options is to meet your goals
- Pick the winning option
- Later, use the consequences of your choice to modify your goals, the importance you assign them, and the way you evaluate future possibilities.
As the number of options increases, the effort required to make a good decision escalates as well.
The process of goal-setting and decision-making begins with the question “What do I want?” Looks easy to answer, and addressed largely through internal dialogue. But knowing what we want means being able to anticipate accurately how one choice or another will make us feel, and that is no simple task.
Interesting story about how you can read Consumer Reports saying that Volvo is the most reliable car (based on dozens or hundreds of sources, combined). But all it takes is one person at a party saying, “Oh I had one and it was nothing but trouble” to sway us from our choice. Logically, this one report should have almost no influence on your decision. Unfortunately, most people give substantial weight to this kind of anecdotal “evidence”, perhaps so much that it will cancel out the positive recommendation from Consumer Reports, because it is extremely vivid and based on a personal, detailed, face-to-face account.
We assume that the more available some piece of information is to memory, the more frequently we must have encountered it in the past.
When you see film footage of a $50,000 car being driven into a wall, it’s hard to believe the car company doesn’t care about safety, no matter what the crash-test statistics say.
People mistook the pervasiveness of newspaper stories about murders, accidents, or fires as a sign of the frequency of the events these stories profiled. This distortion causes us to miscalculate the various risks we face in life, and thus contributes to some very bad choices.
Any random group of people predicting who will win the Academy Awards will do better than the predictions of any one individual. The group picked 11 out of 12 winners correctly, while the average individual only picked 5 out of 12 correctly, and even the best individual only picked 9.
This is amplified by mass-reach news, because friends and neighbors will have the same biased story from the same source, making us assume it to be true. The more people believe it’s true, the more likely you are to repeat it, and more likely you are to hear it. This is how inaccurate information can create a bandwagon effect, leading quickly to a broad but mistaken consensus.
Any particular item will always be at the mercy of the context in which it is found. A store sold a bread-maker for $279. Later, they added a deluxe version for $429. They didn’t sell many of the expensive ones, but sales of the less expensive one doubled! The $279 now looked like a bargain. Even if companies sell almost none of the highest-priced models, they can reap enormous benefits from producing such models because they help induce people to buy their cheaper (but still expensive) ones.
Losses have more than twice the psychological impact as equivalent gains.
Once something is given to you, it’s yours. Giving it up will entail a loss. Because losses are more bad than gains are good, the thing you have gained is worth more to you than it is to a potential trading partner. Losing the thing will hurt worse than gaining the thing will give pleasure. This is why companies can afford to offer money-back guarantees. Once people own them, the products are worth more to their owners than the mere cash value, because giving up the products would entail a loss.
Even with relatively unimportant decisions, mistakes can take a toll. When you put a lot of time or effort into choosing a restaurant, vacation place, item of clothing, you want that effort to be rewarded with a satisfying result. As options increase, the effort involved in making decisions increases, so mistakes hurt even more. Thus:
- Decisions require more effort
- Mistakes are more likely
- The psychological consequences of mistakes are more severe
Maximizers and Satisficers
If you seek and accept only the best, you are a maximizer.
If you settle for something “good enough”, and don’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better, you are a satisficer.
To a maximizer, satisficers appear to be willing to settle for mediocre, but a satisficer may be just as discriminating. The difference is that the satisficer is content with the merely excellent as opposed to the absolute best.
The goal of maximizing is a source of great dissatisfaction.
Satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy. The best thing people can do is to satisfice.
- Maximizers savor positive events less than satisficers and do not cope as well with negative events.
- After something bad happens to them, maximizers’ sense of well-being takes longer to recover.
- Maximizers tend to brood or ruminate more than sacrificers.
Whereas maximizers might do better objectively than satisficers, they send to do worse subjectively.
So – what counts when we assess the quality of a decision? Objective results or subjective experience? What matters most of the time is how we feel about the decisions we make.
Students who think they’re in the right school get far more out of it than the students who don’t.
Figure out when information-seeking has reached the point of diminishing returns, stop the search, and choose the best option.
Perfectionists have very high standards that they don’t expect to meet, whereas maximizers do. Perfectionists are happier with the results of their actions than maximizers.
For someone who feels overwhelmed by choices, apply the satisficing strategy more often, letting go of the expectation that “the best” is attainable.
Adding options doesn’t add much work for the satisficer, because the satisficer feels no compulsion to check out all the possibilities before deciding.
Learned helplessness can affect future motivation to try, and future ability to detect that you do have control in new situations. Our most fundamental sense of well-being crucially depends on our having the ability to exert control over our environment and recognizing that we do.
Feelings of helplessness should now be rare. But in 1966, only 9% felt left out of things going on around them, in 1986, 37%. In 1966, 36% said what they thought didn’t matter, whereas in 1986, 60% agreed.
The most important factor in providing happiness is close social relations.
Happy people attract others to them, and being with others makes people happy.
In many ways, social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy.
Establishing and maintaining social relations requires a willingness to be bound or constrained by them, even when dissatisfied. Once people make commitments to others, options close.
Following rules eliminates troublesome choices in your daily life.
Friendships often sustain themselves on a combination of standards and routines. We’re drawn to people who meet our standards and then we stick with them. We don’t make a choice, every day, about whether to maintain the friendship. We just do.
Some cultures have constraints in oppressive abundance, while ours has eliminated as many constraints as possible. But oppression can exist at either extreme.
Wanting and liking are served by fundamentally different brain systems.
The downside of abundant choice is that each new option adds to the list of trade-offs.
The quality of any given option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. One of the costs of any option involves passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.
Excellent advice for managing our own psychological response to choice : Pay attention to what you’re giving up in the next-best alternative, but don’t waste energy feeling bad about having passed up an option further down the list that you wouldn’t have gotten to anyway.
The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist. When we engage our imaginations in this way, we will be even less satisfied with the alternative we end up choosing.
There is no objective “best” vacation, job, or activity. What matters is the subjective experience.
Being forced to confront trade-offs in making decisions makes people unhappy and indecisive.
Choosing and Choices
Sony and Aiwa retail story:
- Scenario: one Sony CD player for $99, far below list price.
Survey result: 66% of people said they’d buy it. 34% would wait.
- Scenario: two CD players – Sony for $99 and $169 top-of-the-line Aiwa, both below list price.
Survey result: 27% would buy the Sony, 27% would buy the Aiwa, 46% would wait.
- Scenario: one Sony CD player at $99 and a clearly inferior Aiwa at $105.
Survey result: 73% go with the Sony, almost nobody goes for the Aiwa
So… Faced with one attractive option, 66% of people will go for it. But add one conflicting option, and only 50% buy anything.
Adding the 2nd option creates a conflict, forcing a trade-off between price and quality. The 2nd option made it harder, not easier, to choose.
But in the 3rd scenario, the crappy Aiwa gave people confidence that the Sony is a good deal – an anchor of comparison that bolsters a buyer’s reasons for buying the Sony. Call this a non-conflicting option?
Difficult trade-offs make it difficult to justify decisions, so decisions are deferred. Easy trade-offs make it easy to justify decisions. Single options like somewhere in the middle.
Example from medical field. Scenario: a man is suffering from disease. Doctors were asked whether they’d give him medication or send him to a specialist. 75% chose the medication. But when asked whether they’d give him a choice between two medications or send him to a specialist, only 50% chose any medication. Conclusion: adding a 2nd medication doubled the likelihood they’d send him away to a specialist (i.e. they chose to defer the decision).
When people are presented with options involving trade-offs that create conflict, all choices begin to look unappealing.
Court being asked to decide which parent gets custody.
Parent A: normal in every way.
Parent B: has extreme good-sides and extreme bad-sides.
When asked which parent should get custody, most chose B. But when asked which parent should be denied custody, most chose B.
Extreme (B) gave justifying reasons to choose, and also justifying reasons to deny.
People put a higher value on things (when asked to guess a value) when evaluating in isolation than when evaluating as a part of a group.
We want our doctors, investment advisors, Consumer Reports to be weighing the trade-offs for us. We don’t want to have to evaluate the trade-offs ourselves. It’s emotionally unpleasant.
When we are in a good mood, we think better. We consider more possibilities. We’re open to more considerations that would otherwise not occur to us. We see subtle connections we might otherwise miss. Something as trivial as a little gift of candy to medical residents improves the speed and accuracy of their diagnoses. Positive emotion enables us to broaden our understanding of what confronts us.
Students given too many options of what to write an essay on : as they try to write about the topic they chose, they’re further distracted by other appealing but rejected topics, preventing them from thinking clearly.
When people are asked to give reasons for their preferences, they may struggle to find the words. So they grasp at what they can say, and identify it as the basis for their preference. As time passes, the reasons that people verbalized fade into the background and people are left with their unarticulated preferences. People’s satisfaction with the decision they made, fades.
There are pitfalls to deciding after analyzing: as the number of options goes up, the need to provide justifications for decisions also increases.
While participants valued being able to reverse their choices, almost no one actually did so. Those who had the option to change their minds were less satisfied with their choices than participants who did not have that option.
The more options you have, the more likely you will experience regret.
When asked about what they regret most, people name failures to act.
When you miss by a little, you feel it. Example: missing a plane by 1 minute causes much more regret than missing by an hour, since you obsess about all the things that could have saved you 1 minute.
Bronze medalists are happier than Silver medalists, because instead of thinking how close they were to Gold, they think about how close they were to having no medal at all.
- Counterfactual: contrasting actual experience with what it could have been.
- Upward counterfactual: comparing to the next-best option (the Silver medalist)
- Downward counterfactual: comparing to next-worst option (the Bronze medalist)
We’d be happier if we did Downward counterfactual more often. Be grateful things aren’t worse.
Upward comparisons produce jealousy, hostility, frustration, lowered self-esteem, and stress.
Downward comparisons boost self-esteem, and reduce anxiety.
Bad results make people equally unhappy whether they were responsible for it or not. But bad results make people regretful only if they were responsible.
The more our experiences result from our own choices, the more regret we feel if things don’t turn out as we hoped.
People facing decisions involving trade-off, and thus opportunities for regret, will avoid making those decisions altogether.
We show greater willingness to take risks when we know we will find out how the unchosen alternative turned out, and there is thus no way to protect ourselves from regret.
People hold on to stocks that have decreased in value because selling them would turn the investment into a loss.
If you buy two nonrefundable tickets to a ski trip, one costing $50, and one costing $25, then find out they’re on the same day, you’ll go on the $50 ski trip even if there’s a good reason to think you’d have more fun on the $25 ski trip.
Basketball coaches give more time to players earning higher salaries.
People who have started their own business are more likely to invest in expanding them than people who have purchased their business.
Many people persist in troubled relationships because of the effort they’ve already put in.
In all of these cases, what should matter are the prospects for future performance, but what seems to matter is the previous investment.
When there are many options, the chances increase that there is a really good one out there, and you feel you ought to be able to find it. When the option you actually settle on proves disappointing, you regret not having chosen more wisely. As the number of options continues to proliferate, concern for a better option may induce you to anticipate the regret you will feel later on, when that option is discovered, and thus prevent you from making any decision at all.
Regret serves important functions : imagining the various scenarios that may follow it, help us see consequences, won’t make the same mistakes, or even take the actions necessary to undo a decision.
When we consume, we do experience pleasure, as long as the things we consume are novel. As novelty wears off, pleasure is replaced by comfort.
If lottery ticker buyers knew in advance how little winning the lottery would improve their subjective well-being, they wouldn’t be buying tickets.
The more we invest in a decision, the more we expect to realize from our investment. Adaptation makes agonizing over decisions a bad investment.
Adaptation will have more profound effects on maximizers than sufficers. Maximizers make such investment in their decisions so they’re most disappointed when they discover the pleasure they derive from their decisions is short-lived.
- gap between what one has and wants
- gap between what one has and thinks others like oneself have
- gap between what one has and the best one has had in the past
- gap between what one has and what one expects
Real hedonistic charge comes when an experience exceeds expectations.
We can do more to affect the quality of our lives by controlling our expectations than we can by doing virtually anything else!
Leave room for experiences to be a pleasant surprise.
The challenge is keeping wonderful experiences rare (e.g. no matter what you can afford, save great wine for special occasions). It’s a way to make sure you can continue to experience pleasure.
More than half of people chose options that give them better relative position : better to earn $50k/year while others around are earning $25k/year than to be earning $100k/year while others around are earning $200k/year.
Social comparison has relatively little impact on happy people.
The tendency to ruminate traps unhappy people in a downward psychological spiral that is fed by social comparison.
Optimists explain success with chronic, global and personal causes – and failures with transient specific (“I got an A” and “She gave me a C”).
Pessimists do the reverse (“I got a C” and “She gave me an A”).
In societies in which you have little control, you also have little expectation of control. Lack of control does not lead to feelings of helplessness and depression.
Heightened individualism means causal explanations that encourage the individual to blame himself for failure.
Unattainable expectations, plus a tendency to take intense personal responsibility for failure, make a lethal combination.
Those nations whose citizens value personal freedom the most tend to have the highest suicide rates. These same values allow certain individuals within these cultures to thrive and prosper to an extraordinary degree. The problem is that on the national or “ecological” level, these same values have a pervasive, toxic effect.
Practical Advice (What can we do about all this?)
1. Choose when to choose.
Decide which choices in our lives really matter and focus our time and energy there, letting other opportunities pass us by. By restricting our options, we will be able to choose less and feel better.
Try this: (1) review recent decisions you’ve made, (2) itemize the steps, time, research, and anxiety that went into it, (3) remind yourself how it felt to do that work, (4) ask yourself how much your final decision benefitted from that work.
2. Be a chooser, not a picker.
Shorten or eliminate deliberations about decisions that are unimportant to you. If none of the options meet your needs, create better options that do.
3. Satisfice more and Maximize less
4. Limit how much you think about the attractive features of the options you reject.
Unless you’re truly dissatisfied, stick with what you always buy. Don’t be tempted by “new and improved”. Don’t scratch unless there’s an itch. Don’t worry that if you do this, you’ll miss out on all the new things the world has to offer.
5. Make your decisions nonreversible.
Agonizing over whether your love is the real thing, or your sexual relationship up to par, wondering whether you could have done better – is a prescription for misery. Knowing you’ve made a choice that you will not reverse allows you to pour your energy into improving the relationship that you have rather than constantly second-guessing it.
6. Practice gratitude.
7. Regret less
8. Anticipate adaptation (the fact that the “fun wears off” when you get used to the new choice)
Remember that the high-quality sound system, the luxury car, the big house, won’t keep providing the pleasure they give when we first experience them. Spend less time looking for the “perfect” thing, so that you won’t have huge search costs to be amortized against the satisfaction you derive from what you actually choose.
9. Control Expectations
Reduce the number of options you consider. Be a satisficer rather than maximizer. Allow for serendipity.
10. Curtail Social Comparison
11. Learn to Love Constraints
By deciding to follow a rule, we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again.
Read other reviews and notes on the book’s Amazon page.