The Paradox of Choice (2004) is a psychology book on decision making. It investigates the counterintuitive effect of having too many choices: it’s not true that choices necessarily free us, but they can also paralyze us and make us unhappier.
Schwartz, the author, gives practical advice on how to become happier, more fulfilled and even more effective decision-makers.
- Too many choices can make us unhappy, indecisive and regretful (“what if..”)
- Maximizers, people obsessed with making the best decisions, are worst hit
- Fear of regret leads you to sub-par decisions (and self-sabotage)
- You can learn to stress less and be happier
About The Author: Barry Schwarz is an American psychologist and university professor at Swarthmore college.
The usual thinking goes that the more choices people have, the freer and happier they are.
The author says that’s true up to a certain point.
When choices are too many, the negatives start overtaking the positives. Above a certain threshold choices no longer liberate but debilitate us.
Part I: When We Choose
Picture this study:
People could choose between 6 varieties of jams or 24 varieties. The people exposed to the tray with 6 options bought jam 30% of the time.
People exposed to 24 options only bought 3% of the times.
Studies also show that people with fewer choices not only are more likely to buy, but are also more satisfied with what they get.
Part II: How We Choose
Barry Schwartz says that we don’t really shop for value.
We shop for expected value.
Then, once we tried something we build a “remembered utility” and choose based on that.
Ideally expected, experienced and remembered utility match.
But most of the times, they don’t.
Indeed, we don’t really remember all that well our experiences.
Memory Bias: We Remember Peaks
We remember the peak and the ending of an experience.
The duration, for example, matters little.
So ironically you could have a longer bad experience which ends not so bad and you prefer it to a much shorter bad experience which doesn’t taper off at the end.
The memory bias invalidates the concept that we are rational decision-makers when we are presented with many choices.
We Don’t Know What We Will Want
Even when choosing what we would like to consume in the future we make mistakes.
This study showed that students thought they wanted to have more diversity in the future, but they didn’t.
They thought they wanted variety, but instead simply stuck to what they liked most (Diversification Bias).
We Think There Is More If It’s Available
Availability also makes us feel there are more options available than it might be the case.
We think for example there are more words in English starting with “T” than having “T” as the third letter.
But that’s only because we can think of more words beginning with “T”.
We Can Only Decide Comparing Things: Anchoring Bias
We have difficulties considering things in isolation.
Instead, we often make decisions depending on other available options.
In a rack full of 900 Eur suits, a suit at 600 feels like a bargain. The context is indeed what makes a good pick.
This is the anchoring bias (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).
We Value What’s Already Ours More: Endowment Effect
When we acquire something, it feels like its value is higher than the cash we just exchanged it for.
Since we fear loss more than gain, giving up something that’s already ours feels disproportionately unacceptable to us.
That’s why, the author says, some companies can safely offer guarantees: people are not willing to give up their items after it becomes “theirs”.
Similarly, when you propose a car with full options and ask people to winnow what they don’t want, they’ll end up with more stuff than if they were asked to add options from a car with zero options.
Maximisers VS Satisficers
Finally we get here to the real genius part.
Barry Schwartz introduces here the two different ways people relate to options.
The two types of people are: satisficers and maximisers .
- Satisficers: pick the first good option
Satisficers pick the first option.
They don’t spend too much time pondering the different available choices. They are decisive: they take what they like first.
To sell to satisficers marketers need to make their product as available and as visible as possible.
Satisficers are more likely to be happy with their choices.
- Maximizers: search for the best option
Maximizers (want to) pick the best option.
Every choice is a mini-project. They conduct exhaustive and time-consuming searches trying to come up with the final winner.
To succeed with maximisers marketers need to offer the best possible value.
Maximisers often end up less satisfied (read below why).
Maximizers By Choice
Schwartz says we’re not maximizers or satisficers in every single realm of life.
Which is good news, he implies, as it means we can choose.
Maximizers VS Perfectionist
Schwartz says that perfectionists have very high standards they don’t expect to meet.
But maximizers believe they can reach their lofty goals.
That’s why perfectionists are not depressed or regretful. Perfectionists are happier with the results of their actions than maximizers are.
Maximizers Suffer of Regret
Almost everyone who scores high on the maximizer scale scores high in the regret scale.
In the presence of many options Maximizers end up unsatisfied as soon as they found out there are new or better options.
And one of the reasons why maximizers take so long to decide is also because they want to avoid future regret.
Maximizers indeed can sometimes even experience anticipated regret.
It’s the imagination of how bad you’ll feel if you realize you didn’t make the best choice.
The overload of choice indeed is a burden to maximizers, not to satisficers, as they feel the need to research to avoid making the wrong choice.
Near Misses Are So Painful for Maximizers
Near Misses are particularly painful for maximizers as near misses, sorry the pun, maximize regret.
You were so close and yet not cigar.
That’s one of the reasons why bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists.
Regret Leads Us to Poor Decision Making
It was eye opening for me when Barry laid out clearly that often we make choices based on future regret.
Imagine you can choose between a great possible win and a good certain win.
You will choose differently depending on whether you will be available to know what had happened if you had taken the risky bet.
People indeed show greater willingness to risk when they can find out the “what if option”.
It’s because they will not have to deal with the “what if” scenario.
Barry says the major determinants of regret are:
- Personal responsibility for the result
- How easily you can imagine better alternatives
The more options there are, the more those two factors are magnified.
Part III: Why We Suffer
Barry Schwartz talks a bit about happiness in relation to wealth and options.
He says that above a certain threshold there’s no strong correlation between wealth and happiness.
Similar to the conclusion Brene Brown reaches, he says that the biggest determinant of happiness are close social relationships.
Albeit, Barry adds, we don’t know the causality here.
But likely it goes both ways: happy people make more social connections, which in turns also makes them even happier.
Decisions With Trade-Offs Make Us Unhappy
Barry Schwartz says that studies show how decisions with trade-offs tend to make people unhappy.
The problem, he adds, is that most decisions present trade-offs.
A common response people adopt is to postpone the decision, he says.
Other Options Make Us Unhappy: Opportunity Costs
A study by the University of Florida shows that people value a magazine if they don’t see any other magazines with it.
Simply the idea they could miss out on other options make people feel that their choice is less valuable.
Schwartz describes an example from his own life.
He was walking along a street full of nice restaurants. He was looking forward to dining in one, but as he kept walking he couldn’t find the best option available, he started losing both appetite and mood.
Looking at one attractive alternative after the other reduces the pleasure of the next one.
Relationships and Job Hopping
Barry Schwartz implies that the feeling of having many romantic options leads people to choice paralysis also in dating.
He says that’s why people marry much later nowadays and hops from job to job.
They are never sure that what they picked is the right one. And the grass often seems greener on the other side.
This is something I mention in Mistakes Women Do In Early Dating.
We Adapt… And We Can’t Predict Our Future Mood
After a few months of winning the lottery, people revert to their level of happiness before winning the lottery.
And people suffering a paralyzing accident also go from depressed to normal.
Schwartz explains what are the external causes and doesn’t want to imply the two events are comparable on people’s level of happiness.
However, it does tell us that people overestimate the impact of most events on their future emotional well being.
Maximizers will likely be most disappointed by adaptation.
Because they spend so much time choosing what they believe will be a big game-changer. Only to find out it didn’t really change their life all that much.
Adaptation is also at the heart of the hedonic treadmill.
And learning about adaptation can help us sweat less on decisions because, a year from now, it won’t really matter that much to you.
Grateful People Are Healthier
The author says grateful people are healthier, happier and even more likely to achieve their goals.
And contrary to adaptation, we can directly control out gratitude.
Comparisons Make us Unhappier
Schwartz says we don’t judge where we stand and the results of our choice in a vacuum, but always based on the environment and on the people around.
Here’s how we evaluate our experiences:
- People around us (because we care about status)
- Previous experiences
- Previous best experience
Maximizers are the ones who really care about social comparisons.
Ownership Culture = Blame & Regret
The American culture stresses the power of the individual and of the individual’s choices (Extreme Ownership mentality).
Such a culture, however also puts more pressure on the individual and on the choices he makes.
Barry says that personal responsibility culture coupled with cultural ideals such as thin bodies causes depressions, illnesses such as bulimia and also an increased suicide rate.
Maximizers are most likely to feel this kind of pressure.
Part IV: What We Can Do
Barry Schwartz says that some people can lead a better life if they can learn to be less of a maximizer.
But the world is not helping you today.
There are far too many choices. Between 1975 and 2008 the average number of products in supermarkets skyrocketed from 9.000 to over 47.000.
So you must do it by yourself.
He proposes a few steps to minimize the choice paradox. This is my take on his suggestions:
- Choose when to choose
Determine what really matters in your life.
Think of how you could spend that time for something else more important. Think of how your final choice will benefit from research, if at all.
If it does, then decide how much time you spend on research.
- Become more of a satisfier
Think of the times you behaved like a satisfier and you happily settled for good enough. Then apply the same logic and methods more often
- Stick to your usual
Unless you’re very unhappy, stick to what you always buy.
This is a great suggestion. Steve Jobs, for example, used to wear the same clothes not to waste time.
- Set rules
The more rules you have, the fewer decisions you gotta make.
- Stick to oldies but goldies
Ray Dalio says great is better than new.
Similarly, Barry suggests not to be tempted by new and improved.
Don’t worry of what you’re missing in the world: likely you’re not missing anything.
- Make your choices final
The author says that the ability to change our minds often leads to stirring disturbance and unhappiness.
A great fix is to make more of our choices final.
Also useful is to make your relationships last: you picked your partner, stick with it.
- Anticipate adaptation
Whatever you’re choosing, it won’t make much a of a difference to you a few weeks down the road.
Think about it and pick something.
- Allow serendipity
If you allow the world to surprise, you’ll be surprised -and happier-
- Practice gratitude
Stop comparing and, also also recommended by Tony Robbins, gratitude is a magical thing to make your life happier.
Barry Schwartz TED Talk
Real Life Applications
There is really a lot to learn here and much you can use to improve your life.
Especially if you are a maximizer.
- Stick to Your Choices
Many options make us feel bad about picking something or staying with something.
That’s why we job hop and find it hard to commit to a partner.
Make your choice final instead, as Angela Duckworth explains, passion grows when you stick to things.
- Stop Wasting Time on BS Decisions
I’m sure we’ll have been guilty of this. As MJ DeMarco explains time is the most precious resource we have.
Let’s stop spending time on small decisions and let’s use that time for what really matters.
- Don’t Allow Regret to Stop You Doing The Right Thing
I realized I have too often allowed regret to stand in the way of making the best decisions.
Out of fear of regretting something later on, I don’t do anything -or self sabotaged myself-.
When you do the same, you never give yourself a chance.
This is also similar to the concept of Resistance in Linchpin by Seth Godin.
- Be Aware of Memory Bias
When something bad happens to us last, we will blow it out of proportions and forget all the good things.
Watch out when that happens so that you don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.
- Embrace Serendipity
Torturing on “what ifs” not only lead you nowhere, but your what ifs are most likely wrong.
Maybe if you had gone to college you would have hated it. Or a truck would have hit you on your first day there.
You don’t know the what ifs scenario. Embrace a bit more of serendipity in your life.
- Let Go of Regret
There’s only to gain when you can let go of bad decisions from the past.
And you can only gain when you can make decisions without fears of tomorrow’s regret.
Published Early, It’s Not As Simple
The book jumped the gun on early research, so it’s not a complete overview of the impact of choices.
The paradox of choice expands much beyond choices.
Possibly the title should have reflected that.
More importantly, I haven’t always found the chapters to well reflect the content.
I loved “The Paradox of Choice”.
I remember years ago going through an introvert checklist and realizing for the first time in my life “fu*k, I’m an introvert!”.
The Paradox of Choice was equally eye opening for me when I realized I’m a maximizer.
Personally, this book it also happens at a great moment in my life. I was just realizing I was allowing fear of regret and future pain to self-sabotage myself.
I believe this book will help me overcome that. And it can hopefully do the same for you if you’re a fellow maximizer.