The Paradox of Choice

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Nov 14, 2009

"The market has its place, but that place isn't every place."
Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz recently went into The Gap to buy a pair of jeans. Since he tends to really wear his out and he keeps wearing them until they are falling apart, much time had passed since his last purchase. A nice young salesperson walked up to him and asked if she could help. 

"I want a pair of jeans - 32-28," I said. 

"Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?" she replied. "Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?" 

Schwartz could hardly believe what he was hearing and after sputtering a bit he finally said, "I just want regular jeans. You know the kind that used to be the only kind." 

You will find that exchange near the beginning of Barry Schwartz's fascinating book The Power of Choice: Why More is Less (2004). Here the reader is confronted with the challenges which arise when we have too many choices, i.e. what Schwartz calls "choice overload." 

I can identify with what he is saying. Whether I am ordering a car with all of the optional equipment or a beverage at a local coffee shop, life can be extremely complex. Even a trip to the grocery store for chips and salsa or cereal and milk can have me standing there reading the labels and trying to be certain I am making the right choice. Is this what Evie meant when she put this on the list? Who would have ever thought I would need my cell phone every time I made a quick trip to the grocery store. 

I have been in places where choice has not been a problem. I remember walking with Evie through a department store in Dresden, East Germany before the wall came down. The shelves were strangely bare with only a few available products and they all looked the same. We felt like we were walking through an empty warehouse. 

Our budgets may not always allow us to consider all of the options which are available to us but just knowing there are so many possibilities makes us hesitant to make a choice for fear that we may not be making the best one. We all can face "choice overload." 

Here are the five (5) things Schwartz argues in his book: 

  • 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 was "good enough" instead of seeking the best (have you ever heard a parent say, "I want the 'good enough' for my kids?")
  • We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of our decisions.
  • We would be better off if the decisions we made were nonreversible.
  • We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.
As we move toward the month of December and the Christmas season, we would all do well to ponder his suggestions. Schwartz also says, "Perhaps most important, if you limit the number of choices you make and the number of options you consider, you're going to have more time available for what's important than people who are plagued by one decision after another, always in search of the best. You may not always be conscious of this, but your effort to get the best car will interfere with your desire to be a good friend." 

We do seem to live in a world with unlimited choices. Just about everything suffers from comparison. The economist, Fred Hirsch called this the "tyranny of small decisions" which robs us of simple satisfaction. No wonder Schwartz explained "why more is less." 

Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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