The paradox of choice has been nagging at me lately: I have now so many razors that, even if I just use those I like most, I end up not using some for a long time. And, of course, making decisions actually does burn energy. (Thus Steve Jobs always wearing the same attire, the president having his clothing laid out for him and his breakfast served to him—both are avoiding using up decision energy on trivial matters.)
Barry Schwartz is the psychologist who (literally) wrote the book on the paradox of choice. Paul Hiebert interviews him for Pacific Standard:
Ten years have passed since the publication of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, a highly influential book written by the psychologist Barry Schwartz. If the title doesn’t sound familiar, the idea behind Schwartz’s argument should: Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. Whether you’re deliberating between breakfast cereals, TV shows, career paths, pension plans, or lifetime partners, the amount of options out there can be overwhelming. In modern America, however, the freedom to decide who you are and who you’re going to be is mandatory.
While Schwartz doesn’t claim he discovered the setbacks of excessive choice, The Paradox of Choice is perhaps our best articulation of the overall problem. In the book, for example, he explores the stress people feel when confronted with ample opportunity, and the regret that follows from choosing poorly (whose fault is it other than mine?). He also discusses our loss of presence (why am I doing this when I could be doing that?), our raised expectations (with so many options, why settle for less?), and our tarnished sense of self that comes from comparing our choices with the choices of others (why do I continue to pick the wrong things when Alex always picks the right ones?). In sum, Schwartz’s work poses a serious challenge to the notion that more choice brings about more freedom, and more freedom brings about more happiness. As the book’s subtitle implies, sometimes a lot is simply too much.
Over the past decade, the ideas presented in The Paradox of Choice have not run dry. In 2010, for instance, the New York Timespublished an article titled “Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze,” in which Schwartz makes an appearance. Just last August, the New Yorker posted an online piece titled “When It’s Bad to Have Good Choices,” which, again, also mentions Schwartz. If anything, it seems the proliferation and social acceptance of Amazon, smartphones, and online dating has only exacerbated this phenomenon.
To find out more, I recently spoke with Schwartz about his book, his critics, and what has and hasn’t changed since 2004.
Over the past decade, do any particular events, trends, or general changes in the culture stick out to you as suggesting that The Paradox of Choice was right?
Well, it seems to me that the most striking trend is the appearance of social media. My suspicion is that it and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough and you’re always worried you’re missing out. I see this as an extension of what I wrote about at a time when it wasn’t really going on much.
Are you familiar with the fairly recent term “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out)?
Oh yeah, of course. It seems to me that it’s a perfect description. I wish I had thought of that term 10 years ago.
Now, it’s just commonplace. I bet it’s especially bad in places like New York. Nobody makes plans because something better might turn up, and the result is that nobody ever does anything.
How else does social media encourage the problem of too much choice? Don’t you think it can increase social ties, and therefore help mitigate negative feelings? . . .