I had read this book around four years ago, and had liked it. So posting a review of the book on this blog has been on my list for a while now.
The full title of the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction) makes the author’s thesis / proposal pretty clear. Anyway, here is a passage from the book that contains the key theme:
“Freedom and autonomy are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefitting from it psychologically.”
Chapter 5- The Paradox of Choice
This engagingly written, semi-academic book on consumer psychology brings in new insights into impact of excessive choices available to consumers in terms of speed of decision making (and whether a decision is made at all), and the statisfaction with the decision after it is made. The book also looks at two types of people – the ‘maximizers’ and the ‘satisficers’ in the context of decision making (when faced with many choices).
The gist is as follows:
- The universal assumption that more choice is always better is not correct.
- When people are given too many choices, they get paralyzed and often don’t make any decision. Shwartz quotes multiple studies to support his theory.
[One such example: At a luxury food store, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes, there were six different flavors to choose from. At other times, there were 24. People could taste the jam before they purchased it. The sales when there were six flavours to choose from were singnificantly higher than when there were 24 flavours (subsequently there have been doubts expressed on the design of the experiment, sampling and possibility of random variation and other factors that may explain the difference)]
- When we make a decision after evaluating many choices, we are more likely to be unhappy/ anxious about our decision, than if we had fewer choices to evaluate.
[Example: Students from a photography course were allowed to keep one of their prints. Half of the students were later allowed to change the print they had earlier selected, the other half were not given such a choice. Even though very few of the students who were permitted a trade actually exchanged the print they had had earlier selected, the group that was not given an option to trade was happier with their print than the group that was given a second choice]
- Decison making is a stressfull process, and when there are too many choices, the stress and anxiety levels increase (reviewer’s note: maybe that is why pre-plated meals are so popular!), during the decision making process and after it.
- There are two types people – the ‘maximizers’ and the ‘satisficers’.
- Maximizers try to take the best decision, and they try to make sure that they have evaluated all possible options. Maximizers tend to be slow in decision making and are more anxious about their choice even after the decison is made.
- Satisficers make their decision as soon as they find an option that is satisfactory and stop looking at other choices. They normally do not keep validating that their decision was the right one. They are less stressed during and after their decision making.
- Shwartz also provides some practical steps to derive more satisfaction from the choices that we make.
The book presents a new way of looking at decision making. Though availability of choices is empowering to the decision maker, too many choices are paralyzing, time-consuming, stressful, and eventually disatisfying. Excessive choices is a phenomenon of the developed nations in the West and this phenomenon is slowly spreading to all parts of the world. Shwatrz makes a plea to increase the choices for ‘have nots’ and reduce them for the ‘haves’, so that everyone is happier. The book does not say how to determine the right number of choices.
The book is written in a mix of academic and racy/ popular styles. Also, many of the concepts are repeated with multiple examples. In spite of that the book is engrossing and engaging.
I strongly recommend at least one read of the book to following professionals – they can keep the principles in mind while providing choices to their managers, staff, and customers:
- Product and service designers
- Process designers
- HR Policy makers
- Marketing/ Sales folk
About the author
Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. In addition to the Paradox of Choice, he has authored/ co-authored many other books like Psychology of Learning and Behavior and The Costs of Living. He frequently publishes editorials in the New York Times applying his research in psychology to current events.
Here are some details, if you want to get a copy of the book:
Author: Barry Schwartz
Publishing Date: 2004
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Formats Available In: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, Audio
You can also view this 20 min video where the author Barry Schwartz explains the concepts in the book in his TED talk (uploaded on youtube):
Please feel free to share your views, experiences or queries, using the “comments” feature available.