Learning to read culture – the paradox of choice…

Paradox of Choice

Why can’t you buy a cell phone that doesn’t do too much?  Why are there 175 salad dressings on the shelf at the supermarket?  Why are 120 retirement plans offered in the workplace?  And 50 styles of jeans at the clothing store? 


In a consumer oriented society, the standard answer to these questions is that people want choice, lots of options.  But is the issue choice or something a bit deeper?  Conventional wisdom among those in the know—from political consultants to advertising executives—holds that “freedom is about having choices and that having more choices means having more freedom.”


Or, as psychologist Barry Schwartz asked in a New York Times article, “Is freedom just another word for many things to buy?  Choice is the vehicle to freedom—it “enables all of us to live exactly the kind of lives we want to and think we should.”


But Dr. Schwartz argues that conventional wisdom is wrong about choice.  While defending choice as a good, he points out that it is a limited good.  What’s more, the abundance of choice can confuse us or even make us miserable.


Choice produces paralysis:


[Choice] produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example of this: a study that was done of investments in voluntary retirement plans. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard, the gigantic mutual fund company of about a million employees and about 2,000 different workplaces. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds – 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. … So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices.


Options produce regret:


[If] we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. And there are several reasons for this. One of them is that with a lot of different salad dressings to choose from, if you buy one, and it’s not perfect – and, you know, what salad dressing is? – it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.


Choice elevates expectations:


[There’s also an] escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. I wear jeans almost all the time. And there was a time when jeans came in one flavor, and you bought them, and they fit like crap, and they were incredibly uncomfortable, and if you wore them long enough and washed them enough times, they started to feel OK. So I went to replace my jeans after years and years of wearing these old ones, and I said, you know, “I want a pair of jeans. Here’s my size.” And the shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …”On and on he went. My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.”


He had no idea what that was, so I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store – truth! – with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. I did better. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why? … The reason I felt worse is that, with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had very low – I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors … one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected.


What are some of the consequences of an incredible number of choices in all the different areas of life?


Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant – not the only, but a significant – contributor to this explosion of depression, and also suicide, is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so the net result is that we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. So let me remind you. This is the official dogma, the one that we all take to be true, and it’s all false. It is not true. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. …


Christians who would understand the dynamics of contemporary culture can learn a good deal from Dr. Schwartz.  Of course, it will require setting aside his left-leaning cultural and political comments.  But his research offers important insights that we can profit from as we learn to read—to understand—contemporary culture.   Or in biblical language, he is a resource for learning to read the signs of the times.


Dr. Barry Schwartz is professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.  His TED Talk, The Paradox of Choice” (both video and transcript), is available here.




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One Response to “Learning to read culture – the paradox of choice…”

  1. But who is to limit the choices?