Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Book Review - The Paradox of Choice : Why More Is Less

This week's book review is The Paradox of Choice : Why More Is Less - How the culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction by Barry Schwartz.

This book's main thesis is that too much choice is detrimental to our lives - it makes us unhappy, not to mention taking up a lot of our life. He divides the world into maximisers and satisficers (the only thing I hated about this book was this word). Maximisers are those who are determined to make sure that every choice they make is the best possible one. Satisficers are those who are happy with a choice once they know it satisfies all their criteria.

Most people will display different behaviours for different choices, but if you are too much of a maximiser, then you will tend to make yourself unhappy. Not only do you spend an awful lot of time making every single decision, you are much more likely to regret the decision you made, as you have thought so hard about it that you know every nuance of the option that you didn't take.

Having more choices available will make you more likely to be a maximiser. If there are two choices, you can think hard, or not much, but in the end, the choice you didn't make is fairly obvious. But if you have ten choices, each one will have its good and bad points, and your eventual choice is unlikely to to have every single good point. So you're more likely to be dissatisfied with your choice, particularly if you spent a lot of time weighing up the possibilities (and hence thinking about the good points of all the choices you didn't make).

There are lots of other very interesting discussions about the way we make choices (for example the way a choice is framed can make a huge difference to the decisions people will make - someone is much happier prices being described as a discount for cash than as a surcharge for credit, even if the price is exactly the same - 10% cheaper for cash).

In the end, Schwartz conclues that the excessive choice available is one of the major reasons for the increase in depression and mental illness at a time when we are increasingly affluent as a society.

Interestingly, his solutions are totally personal ones. Although there is too much choice in everyone's life, his view is that the part of each person's life that really needs choice is different for each person, so all those choices need to be available to everyone. His recommendations are good ones, and made me think about the less obvious ways in which individual freedom to choose can backfire. They could seem a bit obvious or patronising if you haven't read the reasoning behind them, so I won't list them all.

On reading the book, I do think there are public policy issues that are worth thinking about, particularly in framing choices. In my own professional life, employers responsible for superannuation choice could use a few recommendations on ways to frame the choices available to employees in ways that they are likely to make sensible choices.

My first thought on reading this book was that now I knew where all Ross Gittins' column ideas have come from recently. Not true, I don't think - it must have been one particular column that made an impression on me. It could come under the category of self-help (and with it's recommendations at the end, it has probably been marketed that way), but to me it's an interesting and different philosophical take on the world.


At 10:55 am, Anonymous elsewhere said...

Coming in at this from a slightly different angle, I feel as tho I'm bombarded with unwanted choice these days. Why can't we just go back to the olden days of one phone company etc? This will sound lazy, but I often can't be bothered with the 'administration of choice' (tho I do like to shop for a good mobile plan). There's other things I'd rather do with my spare time than look for the most competitive service provider.

This thesis sounds a bit like Richard Wissmann[sic?]'s research into the psychology of luck, which found that 'lucky' people tended to be optimistic, well-networked extroverts who generated lots of options for themselves, whereas the unlucky were the opposite (like me).

At 10:39 am, Blogger Jennifer said...

I agree! After reading this book, I've decided that it's not laziness, but good sense, that is making me not bother with checking out all my health insurance alternatives now that I'm forced to choose.


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