The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

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by Barry Schwartz
     
 

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Whether we're buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions—both big and small—have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.

As Americans, we assume that more choice

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Overview

Whether we're buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions—both big and small—have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.

As Americans, we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains at what point choice—the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish—becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. In accessible, engaging, and anecdotal prose, Schwartz shows how the dramatic explosion in choice—from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs—has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. Schwartz also shows how our obsession with choice encourages us to seek that which makes us feel worse.

By synthesizing current research in the social sciences, Schwartz makes the counter intuitive case that eliminating choices can greatly reduce the stress, anxiety, and busyness of our lives. He offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on those that are important and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices you have to make.

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Editorial Reviews

Christian Science Monitor
“Brilliant.... The case Schwartz makes... is compelling, the implications disturbing.... An insightful book.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“An insightful study that winningly argues its subtitle.”
Austin American-Statesman
“Schwartz lays out a convincing argument.... [He] is a crisp, engaging writer with an excellent sense of pace.”
St. Petersburg Times
“Schwartz offers helpful suggestions of how we can manage our world of overwhelming choices.”
Washington Post
“Wonderfully readable.”
Booklist
“Schwartz has plenty of insightful things to say about the perils of everyday life.”
BusinessWeek
“With its clever analysis, buttressed by sage New Yorker cartoons, The Paradox of Choice is persuasive.”
USA Today
Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor of social theory, makes a lively, non-academic and convincing argument that although there is a necessary standard of living for people to be happy, Americans in the 21st century have fallen into a morass of lingering discontent, gnawing anxiety and an obsession with status. And the relentless barrage of clever ads only foments our sense that there's always something better out there. —Deirdre Donahue
Alex Bozikovic
...he presents an impressive array of psychological evidence about how more looking actually makes us less happy with our choices....The Paradox Of Choice makes a strong scientific case for balance, for an "attitude of gratitude," for leaving our losses behind and focusing on the future.
The Toronto Star
Publishers Weekly
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. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The freedom to make choices is perhaps the fundamental right of free persons. The entire social system of the United States and much of the Western world hinges on one's ability to choose for oneself. However, in this fascinating book, Schwartz (psychology, Swarthmore Coll.; The Costs of Living) looks at the downside of all these choices. "The fact that some choice is good doesn't necessarily mean more choice is better. . . . Clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction-and even clinical depression." With the thousands of little choices we make every day (a number that has increased exponentially over the past few decades-see, for example, the grocery store's cereal aisle), Americans are being overloaded and worn down as they search for the best option rather than options that are good enough and satisfy our needs. Schwartz takes readers through relevant research to explain why too many choices can be negative, and in the final chapter he explains how to deal with the problems of too much choice. The book is well researched and authoritative yet written in a style that makes it accessible to college and higher-level public library patrons. Recommended.-Mark Bay, Cumberland Coll. Lib., Williamsburg, KY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060005696
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
01/18/2005
Series:
P.S. Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
87,349
Product dimensions:
7.94(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.75(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

The Paradox of Choice
Why More Is Less

Chapter One

Let's Go Shopping

A Day at the Supermarket

Scanning the shelves of my local supermarket recently, I found 85 different varieties and brands of crackers. As I read the packages, I discovered that some brands had sodium, others didn't. Some were fat-free, others weren't. They came in big boxes and small ones. They came in normal size and bite size. There were mundane saltines and exotic and expensive imports.

My neighborhood supermarket is not a particularly large store, and yet next to the crackers were 285 varieties of cookies. Among chocolate chip cookies, there were 21 options. Among Goldfish (I don't know whether to count them as cookies or crackers), there were 20 different varieties to choose from.

Across the aisle were juices -- 13 "sports drinks," 65 "box drinks" for kids, 85 other flavors and brands of juices, and 75 iced teas and adult drinks. I could get these tea drinks sweetened (sugar or artificial sweetener), lemoned, and flavored.

Next, in the snack aisle, there were 95 options in all -- chips (taco and potato, ridged and flat, flavored and unflavored, salted and unsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat), pretzels, and the like, including a dozen varieties of Pringles. Nearby was seltzer, no doubt to wash down the snacks. Bottled water was displayed in at least 15 flavors.

In the pharmaceutical aisles, I found 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock, and 80 different pain relievers -- aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen; 350 milligrams or 500 milligrams; caplets, capsules, and tablets; coated or uncoated. There were 40 options for toothpaste, 150 lipsticks, 75 eyeliners, and 90 colors of nail polish from one brand alone. There were 116 kinds of skin cream, and 360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse. Next to them were 90 different cold remedies and decongestants. Finally, there was dental floss: waxed and unwaxed, flavored and unflavored, offered in a variety of thicknesses.

Returning to the food shelves, I could choose from among 230 soup offerings, including 29 different chicken soups. There were 16 varieties of instant mashed potatoes, 75 different instant gravies, 120 different pasta sauces. Among the 175 different salad dressings were 16 "Italian" dressings, and if none of them suited me, I could choose from 15 extra-virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars and make my own. There were 275 varieties of cereal, including 24 oatmeal options and 7 "Cheerios" options. Across the aisle were 64 different kinds of barbecue sauce and 175 types of tea bags.

Heading down the homestretch, I encountered 22 types of frozen waffles. And just before the checkout (paper or plastic; cash or credit or debit), there was a salad bar that offered 55 different items.

This brief tour of one modest store barely suggests the bounty that lies before today's middle-class consumer. I left out the fresh fruits and vegetables (organic, semi-organic, and regular old fertilized and pesticized), the fresh meats, fish, and poultry (free-range organic chicken or penned-up chicken, skin on or off, whole or in pieces, seasoned or unseasoned, stuffed or empty), the frozen foods, the paper goods, the cleaning products, and on and on and on.

A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. That's a lot to choose from. And more than 20,000 new products hit the shelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure.

Comparison shopping to get the best price adds still another dimension to the array of choices, so that if you were a truly careful shopper, you could spend the better part of a day just to select a box of crackers, as you worried about price, flavor, freshness, fat, sodium, and calories. But who has the time to do this? Perhaps that's the reason consumers tend to return to the products they usually buy, not even noticing 75% of the items competing for their attention and their dollars. Who but a professor doing research would even stop to consider that there are almost 300 different cookie options to choose among?

Supermarkets are unusual as repositories for what are called "nondurable goods," goods that are quickly used and replenished. So buying the wrong brand of cookies doesn't have significant emotional or financial consequences. But in most other settings, people are out to buy things that cost more money, and that are meant to last. And here, as the number of options increases, the psychological stakes rise accordingly.

Shopping for Gadgets

Continuing my mission to explore our range of choices, I left the supermarket and stepped into my local consumer electronics store. Here I discovered:

  • 45 different car stereo systems, with 50 different speaker sets to go with them.
  • 42 different computers, most of which could be customized in various ways.
  • 27 different printers to go with the computers.
  • 110 different televisions, offering high definition, flat screen, varying screen sizes and features, and various levels of sound quality.
  • 30 different VCRs and 50 different DVD players.
  • 20 video cameras.
  • 85 different telephones, not counting the cellular phones.
  • 74 different stereo tuners, 55 CD players, 32 tape players, and 50 sets of speakers. (Given that these components could be mixed and matched in every possible way, that provided the opportunity to create 6,512,000 different stereo systems.)

And if you didn't have the budget or the stomach for configuring your own stereo system, there were 63 small, integrated systems to choose from.

Unlike supermarket products, those in the electronics store don't get used up so fast. If we make a mistake, we either have to live with it or return it and go through the difficult choice process all over again. Also, we really can't rely on habit to simplify our decision, because we don't buy stereo systems every couple of weeks and because technology changes so rapidly that chances are our last model won't exist when we go out to replace it. At these prices, choices begin to have serious consequences.

The Paradox of Choice
Why More Is Less
. Copyright © by Barry Schwartz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. He is the author of several books, including Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, with Kenneth Sharpe, and Why We Work. His articles have appeared in many of the leading journals in his field, including American Psychologist.

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