By nature, humans inherently believe that the availability of may choices means more satisfaction, freedom, flexibility and comfort. However, Barry Schwartz believes that more choices actually make things more complicated and difficult.
According to Schwartz, the “official dogma of all Western industrial societies” is that the best way to maximize the welfare of citizens is to maximize individual freedom. Western industrial societies believe that the freedom of choice is important for each citizen to act on their own and do the things that will maximize their welfare autonomously. That way, the society can thrive and nurture happier citizens. Essentially, maximizing freedom involves maximizing choice.
However, Schwartz examines the downside of this dogma and the unobvious disadvantage that comes with having too many products or services to choose from. He calls this “paralysis”.
What Exactly is the Paradox of Choice?
One particular effect of having too many options to choose from, according to Schwartz, is that paradoxically, it produces paralysis rather than liberation. Simply put, when people have to choose between many things, it becomes increasingly difficult to choose any one at all. This is largely because when the options are few, people can compare faster, decide quicker and pick a single choice feeling fulfilled.
However, when the options are numerous, people spend too much time trying to get the decision right, juxtaposing attributes and qualities before making the final choice. Sadly, they may end up not picking anyone at all because they find it hard to make up their minds and are afraid of making the wrong decision.
Another effect of overwhelming choices is that even when people could overcome the paralysis and make a single choice, they end up feeling less satisfied with the result of the choice than they would be if they had just fewer options before them. This happens because of many reasons. One of them is that, with many imagined alternatives before them, it’s easy to have regrets and believe that they could have made a different choice with a better outcome. This feeling of regret, Schwartz says, removes the satisfaction one could have had even if they had made the best decision. By inference, the more options people have, the easier it is to regret even the smallest thing they eventually find disappointing about the option they have chosen.
Furthermore, “opportunity costs” affect how people see and value things. Ultimately, the value we attach to things often depends on what we compare them to. When there are lots of alternatives to consider, it’s easy to assume the attractive features of rejected alternatives. This brings less satisfaction with the chosen alternative and instead causes misery, even if the chosen alternative is a terrific one.
Lastly, the paradox of choice leads to the escalation of expectations. With many options available, expectations about what makes a particular product good go up. However, when people don’t have any or many choices to pick from, they may have no particular expectations and be easily satisfied with whatever choice they have picked.
As expectations go through the roof, it eliminates the element of surprise. This, and other aforementioned effects of having too many choices, may make people feel disappointed about the choices they make as they start comparing with other available alternatives. In the end, they blame themselves for poor decision-making and they are prone to developing low self-esteem and clinical depression.
In conclusion, Schwartz recommends that everyone needs a fishbowl – some sort of limitations to the choices and freedom they have so as to reduce paralysis and increase satisfaction.