The Paradox of Choice - Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz was a fascinating read.

I’ve watched his TED talk a few years ago and loved it. Although the talk summarizes the main theme of the book very well, the book is well worth the read.

Have you ever wondered any of these?

  • Why do I always feel dissatisfied with the clothes I bought?
  • Why am I unable to find a romantic partner despite the fact that I live in the city where there are so many candidates?
  • Why am I getting happier even though I make more money than before?

This book answers all of the questions.

Overview

Barry introduces many little concepts throughout the book, but the central theme is this:

Contrary to our belief, having more choice is not necessarily a good thing.

Here is one of the examples from the book. A grocery store set up a sample table displaying different flavors of jams. In one condition, 6 flavors are available. In another, 24. As you might guess, more customers came for tasting when 24 flavors are available. However, 30 percent of the customers who came to the table of 6 flavors bought a jar, and only 3 percent of those who came to the table of 24 flavors did so.

Why? You might think that the more choice you have, the more likely you will find what you like, therefore the more likely you will buy a jar. Right? In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

There are 7 reasons why more choice does not make us happy.

1. It takes more effort to make decisions

This is obvious. Considering too many options is exhausting and quite a waste of time. Do you want to spend 10 minutes tasting 24 flavors of jam just to find your favorite? I do not. I would rather spend time on more important things. I like jam though.

Have you ever seen a housewife in a grocery store who spends too much time trying to choose the biggest tomato? Let’s say a tomato costs $1 each and an average tomato weighs 100g, which means 1 cent/g. And your wage is $9/hour, which means your value is 2.5 cents/10 seconds. In this case, if you spend 10 seconds, you need to find a tomato that weighs at least 102.5g to justify your time. And the more time you spend, the harder it gets to find a tomato that is big enough for your time. Of course most people, including me, would rather choose a tomato than work, so the calculation needs some adjustment. But you get the idea. Time is money.

2. It’s less probable to choose the best.

If you were shown 6 flavors of jam, you would assume one of them is the best. So the probability of choosing the best flavor is one sixth, which is roughly 17%. If you were shown 24 flavors, the probability would go down to one twenty fourth, which is about 4%.
Assuming you don’t want to taste 24 flavors, chances are you won’t be able to choose the best.

3. Objectively better doesn’t mean subjectively good.

“But I can taste all 24 flavors!”, you might say. Of course you can. And if you do, you will probably find a better flavor than if you choose from only 6. But here is the paradox. There are many more varieties of jam out there. If you really want the best jam, you are going to have to spend the rest of your life searching for it (that might be a fascinating life). So even if you find the “best” jam among the 24, you probably won’t feel satisfied.

Barry calls these people maximizers. Maximizers are those who are determined to make only the best choices. In contrast, satisficers are people who settle for “good enough”. When it comes to happiness, subjective satisfaction is more important than objective quality. If you only accept the best, you will never feel satisfied. A satisficer sets a standard, and once he finds something that meets the standard, he is happy to settle.

4. You are more likely to blame yourself

When you are dissatisfied with the jam jar you bought, whose fault is it? If you chose from only 6 flavors, it's easy to blame the store for not having a flavor that you like. But if you chose from a lot of options, you would blame no one but yourself.

5. Opportunity cost is bigger

According to Wikipedia, the opportunity cost is the value of the choice of a best alternative cost while making a decision. When I moved to the current apartment 7 months ago, I considered many alternatives. Each had a desirable feature, but none of them was perfect. Let’s say these are my options, in order of preference:

  1. Largest, has a counter kitchen, expensive
  2. Closet to office, small
  3. Has nice bathroom, small
  4. Has great view, a little far away from office

In theory, only the second best option counts as the opportunity cost. So I took No. 1 and gave up the convenient location that No. 2 offers. In practice, however, it doesn’t work this way. If you think about options in terms of features rather than as a whole, each option ranks as best with respect to each feature. So you feel like you also gave up the nice bathroom and the great view. Therefore the more choice you have, the greater the opportunity costs will be.

This is a very interesting concept and illustrates how the microeconomic theory plays out in the real world.

6. It’s hard to meet the rise of expectation

When you get raise or a new car or a new smartphone, you get excited for a while. Then you get used to them and take them for granted. This is called adaptation. And adaptation for pleasure is called hedonic adaptation. Because of hedonic adaptation, people endlessly chase newer, fancier, cooler things. As a result, the objective quality of life of those people keeps going up, but their subjective experience stays the same. This phenomenon is called hedonic treadmill. Similar, but even more dangerous is what is called satisfaction treadmill. You adapt to not just objects or experiences, but also particular levels of pleasure. That is why after certain amount of income, income and happiness show no correlation.

7. It forces you to compare with others

Considering many options is hard. That’s why people tend to rely on others. We read reviews online and ask friends. But if you compare with what other people have, you will be affected by them. It’s easy to think “My colleague is wearing Rolex. I should buy one too”(I don’t own a watch, hence Rolex, the only brand I can think of right now). Social comparison makes it difficult to estimate what is good enough.

What we can do about it

In the last chapter of the book, Barry introduces 11 ways to cope with the problem of too much choice. I will just show the titles for brevity.

  1. Choose when to choose
  2. Be a chooser, not a picker
  3. Satisfice more and maximize less
  4. Think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs
  5. Make your decisions nonreversible
  6. Practice an “Attitude of Gratitude”
  7. Regret less
  8. Anticipate adaption
  9. Control expectations
  10. Curtail social comparison
  11. Learn to love constraints

Conclusion

I’m glad that I read it. The only down side of the book is that it’s somewhat repetitive. Other than that I highly recommend it. Although it never mentions “minimalism”, the core idea is similar.

If you’re interested in this book, check it out here: The Paradox of Choice