The Paradox of Choice

"Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet."

- Paradox of Choice, page 74

In a world saturated with endless choices, one would think that more is better. But in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, How the Culture of Abundance Robs us of Satisfaction, he proves that the opposite is true. He asserts that with more options available, making choices may involve trade-offs and opportunity costs, resulting in psychological distress, indecision and regret from making the wrong choice.

Schwartz is a psychologist and the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. He has written on the topic of choice overload for multiple publications and consulted as well with many organizations. He believes that the stress and regret of making the wrong decision can be mitigated by reducing the need to have the best of everything and focusing instead on what is good enough.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Satisfice more and maximize less

"Learning to accept good enough will simplify decision making and increase satisfaction."
- The Paradox of Choice, page 224

Schwartz breaks down decision-makers into two types—maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers look for the best in every decision they make. They study every alternative and consider the opportunity costs of all decisions and options not taken. This requires time and effort and in a choice-saturated world; maximizers can easily be overwhelmed by all these selections.

Satisficers, on the other hand, focus on what is good enough. They have pre-determined criteria and standards and don’t worry about there being something better out there. When they find something they like, they stop looking.

Research quoted in his book shows that maximizers regret their decisions more than satisficers, worry about missed opportunities, are more likely to be unhappy, and engage in more social comparison.  Social comparison involves comparing the decision made to what you had hoped it would be or comparing it to what others have selected.

“Maximizers will put the most work into their decisions and have the highest expectations about the results of those decisions, and thus will be the most disappointed,” Schwartz writes.

The first step is to reduce maximizing as you become aware of it and incorporate more satisficing into your decision making whenever possible. Reflect on which decisions qualify for good enough and apply it consistently. He also suggests developing “well-defined standards for what is good enough” as detailed in the first GEM.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Develop rules and standards to replace decision-making

"A way of easing the burden that freedom of choice imposes is to make decisions about when to make decisions."
- The Paradox of Choice, page 113

Setting limits on the choices we have to make can be liberating. The author suggests setting rules, standards and protocols for certain situations to minimize decision-making. Decide when to decide.

Regarding standards, he suggests dividing the choices into two options: those that meet the standard and those that do not. When a choice comes along, compare it to the criteria and stop second-guessing. This can be applied to shopping for clothes, cars, making an investment decision or where to spend your vacation. “Deciding that once we find something that meets our standards we’ll stick with it essentially takes away that area of decision making.”

An example he refers to is the choice of friends, which we select based on standards we set. He asserts that “We don’t make a choice every day, about whether to maintain the friendship; we just do.”

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Practice gratitude to minimize regret

"The more options there are, the more if only’s you will generate. And with each if only you generate will come a little more regret and a little less satisfaction with the choice you actually made."
- The Paradox of Choice, page 163

Regret for making the incorrect choice is always a possibility with the endless choices available in our society. With the internet making comparisons instantaneous, we’re always on the lookout for the best deal out there. Based on studies, Schwartz claims that we usually “choose the option that minimizes the chances that we will experience regret.”

His suggestion for minimizing regret is to practice gratitude and “remind yourself of how good things actually are instead of focusing on how they’re less good than they were at first.” Keep a daily list of what you’re grateful for. Following a major decision, practice gratitude for what is good rather than focusing on the negatives. Stop searching for the best or perfect option and be content.

Reducing choice overload is instrumental to becoming happier with our decisions and diminishing regret from bad choices. Know when to make a decision and when to rely on a standard or rule you’ve set. Spend less time comparing yourself to someone else and more time focusing on what you care about. As the author notes, “We must decide which choices in our lives really matter and focus our time and energy there.”

What are the key decisions in your life?

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John Petrone

ABOUT John Petrone

I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada and moved to Chicagoland at twenty-six. As an auditor, I travelled the world and lived in Europe for six months, applying my Italian and French speaking proficiencies...
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