Choosing the right amount of choice

The TED talk which I have seen praised most often is Barry Shwartz’s Paradox of Choice. His claim is that the ‘official dogma of all Western industrial societies’ – that more choice is good for us – is wrong. This has apparently been a welcome message for many.

Barry thinks the costs of choice are too high at current levels. His reasons are that it increases our expectations, makes us focus on opportunity costs rather than enjoying what we have, paralyzes us into putting off complicated or important choices, and makes us blame ourselves rather than the world when our selections fail to satisfy. We can choose how much choice to have usually though. You can always just pick a random jar of jam from the shelf if you find the decision making costly. So implicit in Barry’s complaint is that we continually misjudge these downsides and opt for more choice than we should.

Perhaps he is right currently, but I think probably wrong in the long term. Why should we fail to adapt? Even if we can’t adapt psychologically, as inability to deal with choices becomes more of a problem, more technologies for solving it will be found. Having the benefits of choice without the current costs doesn’t appear an insoluble problem.

One option for allowing more choice about choice, while keeping some benefits of variety is to have a standard default option available. Another that seems feasible is using a barcode scanner on a phone, connected to product information and an equation for finding the net goodness of products according to the owner’s values (e.g. goodness = -price – 1c per calorie – 1c per 10 miles travelled + 10c per good review – $100m for peanut traces + …). This could avoid a lot of time spent comparing product information on packages by instantly telling you which brand you likely prefer. Systems for telling you which music and films and people you are likely to like based on previous encounters are improving.

I suspect for many things we would prefer to make very resource intensive choices, because we want to make them ourselves. Where we want to have unique possessions that we identify with, each person needs to go through a similar process of finding out product information and assessing it. We don’t want to know once and for all which is most likely to be the best car for most people. Neither do we want to have randomized unique clothing. We usually want our visible possessions to reflect a choice. This isn’t a barrier to improving our choice making though. Any system that gave a buyer the best few options according to their apparent taste, for them to make the final decision, should probably keep the nice parts of choosing while avoiding time spent on disappointing options.

How much choice is good for us depends a lot on the person. Those far out on relevant bell curves will benefit more from access to more obscure options, while the most normal people will do better by going with the standard option without much thought. One level of choice will not suit all and nor will it have to. We will choose to keep and improve our choice of choices.

5 responses to “Choosing the right amount of choice

  1. I agree with you that Shwartz’s experiments massively overstate how much people suffer from choices in the real world. We have lots of hacks for making choice less unpleasant.

    For example I shop at a supermarket that has only one or a few options each product, and I buy the same thing each time. When I go clothes shopping I am happy to satisfice. Usually I don’t change past choices unless I think there’s a good reason to change.

    I like the idea of the product recommender – I can see supermarket chains developing them for food recommendations first. They could only be done in big chains at first because of the high costs of entering all the data. Speaking of product recommendations have you seen this:

  2. Katja, I think you are missing the point of Barry’s talk. Why would an industry ratchet up its development and manufacturing costs to that a few people on the margins capable of not being oppressed by choice can make them. the reason all this choice is on offer is to cater for the psychology of the mass market.

    Beyond that there was the point–that I full accept, but many wouldn’t–that the industrial world’s monopolising of resources is a natural consequence of this consumer ethic, which leads to a misery of poverty in the developing world and a misery of excess in the industrial world.

    The deep point of Barry’s talk is that well-being and contentment comes from our minds and not stuff. By concentrating on stuff, entirely to the neglect of the mind we miss the point. Once we have the basics, chasing stuff just makes us miserable.

    Tim Kasser’s ‘The High price of Materialism’ discussed some studies that have looked at this. Oliver James and “The Selfish Capitalist: The High price of Affluenza” seemed to be advancing in an interesting direction, though its a while since I looked at it.

  3. “–that the industrial world’s monopolising of resources is a natural consequence of this consumer ethic, which leads to a misery of poverty in the developing world”

    So poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich? Nonsense, they’re poor because they haven’t organised their resources to make so much stuff. It would be harder for poor countries to develop now without rich countries to buy their stuff, assist in economies of scale and lend them capital and technology of all kinds.

    Income doesn’t increase happiness beyond basics? Oh no wait, it does:

  4. Nathan Helm-Burger

    I like the idea of having tailored choices, suggestions to me based on reviews or past choices, so long as they are optional. Retaining the choice of how much choice to have.
    I think perhaps there’s another issue in the multitude of choice… a splintering of purpose. We’re paying a cost (in efficiency of industry) to have all those choices, and obviously you can’t infinitely increase choices (given that you don’t reduce cost of increasing choices to zero) without eventually tipping the balance. We’re probably tipped into inefficiency in a bunch of areas.
    Similarly, political protests nowadays seem awfully splintered. People showing up for so many different issues, and disagreeing with each other, and being confused. We splinter our political and economic power by diffusing it over too many choices. A political campaign that fit a bit less well, but had more supporters and thus a bigger chance of succeeding might be better. But how to get your potential allies to choose less choice and join the less-well-fitting campaign?
    Perhaps the biggest benefits of less choice would only appear when a critical mass of people chose less choice.


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