March 15, 2005

Selection Fatigue

Today, Virginia Postrel talks about too many choices on her blog and at Forbes. More accurately, she deconstructs the negative take on freedom of choice propounded in Barry Schwartz's recent The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, as applied to the current debate on giving Americans more control over their Social Security.

In his book, Schwartz takes a hard look at the multiplication of choices available to Americans, and contends that the overload on our psyches requires us to eliminate choice. According to the Publisher's Weekly excerpt at Amazon:

Like Thoreau and the band Devo, psychology professor Schwartz provides ample evidence that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis, providing an illusion of a multitude of options when few honestly different ones actually exist. The conclusions Schwartz draws will be familiar to anyone who has flipped through 900 eerily similar channels of cable television only to find that nothing good is on. Whether choosing a health-care plan, choosing a college class or even buying a pair of jeans, Schwartz, drawing extensively on his own work in the social sciences, shows that a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us. We normally assume in America that more options ("easy fit" or "relaxed fit"?) will make us happier, but Schwartz shows the opposite is true, arguing that having all these choices actually goes so far as to erode our psychological well-being. Part research summary, part introductory social sciences tutorial, part self-help guide, this book offers concrete steps on how to reduce stress in decision making. Some will find Schwartz's conclusions too obvious, and others may disagree with his points or find them too repetitive, but to the average lay reader, Schwartz's accessible style and helpful tone is likely to aid the quietly desperate.

As Ms. Postrel points out, Schwartz does not prescribe any governmental policy solutions to this perceived problem in his book, but in a recent op-ed on Social Security, he wrote: "[w]hether people are choosing jam in a grocery store or essay topics in a college class, the more options people have, the less likely they are to make a choice."

In her Forbes article, Virginia examines the experiment supporting Schwartz's "jam" thesis and discovers that he has conveniently omitted one of the three outcomes -- the one that would undermine his argument about Social Security. According to Ms. Postrel's summary of the experiment, the subjects had to select a chocolate from a group of Godiva chocolates, based on the name and appearance of each type of chocolate. One half had only 6 chocolates to choose from; the other half selected from 30. Then, half of each group (i.e., a quarter of the overall subjects) received the chocolate they'd picked, while the other half got a different sample, which was chosen for them by the experimenter.

The results showed that the people choosing from the group of 6 who received what they wanted were most satisfied. The ones receiving the chocolate they chose out of the group of 30 were less satisfied, as they were worried they hadn't selected the best. But the result omitted by Schwartz was that the group who received the chocolate chosen for them by the experimenter were the least satisfied of all.

Kind of knocks the legs out from under the one-size-fits-all ponzi scheme we have for Social Security right now, doesn't it?

I think it important to note that at some level I sympathize with Schwartz's thesis that we are faced with many many choices, and that learning to distinguish where there may be no real difference can cause fatigue. But I am not a passive consumer. When word-of-mouth fails, I can educate myself online, whether shopping for the best combination of price and features in a gas grill or checking out reviews at on digital cameras. Virginia specifically points this capability out in her Forbes article as an entrepreneurial opportunity. Services like's reader reviews and, heck, blogs help give us new means of making informed choices.

The only real frustration I have with new choices is when they eliminate some of my old ones. But that's just the looming old fogey in me. And, ending on this personal note, I can state with certainty that my family is not afraid of choices. Check out the toothpaste we keep in our bathroom drawers:

Toothpaste Choice.jpg

Posted by JohnL at March 15, 2005 11:13 PM

Was Crest on sale, or do your kids insist on everyone having their own tube?

Posted by: owlish at March 15, 2005 11:26 PM

Oh yeah. Two more thoughts.

1) Health care plans have huge differences, at least from the point of view of a provider. The problem is it is hard to tell the difference before you've actually worked with them. And the biggest factor in customer satisfaction with their doctor? Ease of parking.

2) My parents have around 200 channels on their cable tv. I will likely want to watch only 3-4 channels. Same for my parents and brother, but the channels we want to watch are all different. So, while I would like to be able to purchase only a few channels for my home, my parents need more.

Posted by: owlish at March 15, 2005 11:38 PM

The fancy Crests on the left belong to the boys. They like the variety. The Kids tube is my daughter's, and the other two are mine and Stacey's.

Posted by: JohnL at March 15, 2005 11:40 PM
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