Monday, June 14, 2004

Tyranny of Choice

I recently read an article by Barry Schwartz featured The Tyranny of Choice. Professor Schwartz is in the Department of Psychology at Swarthmore College. It is a research report on how excessive choice affects people. You may be interested as it has some management content. The article has a lot of arguments, statistics and charts. But I just quote a few salient points.

Common sense suggests that having abundant options frees people to find the best route to their own happiness. But in fact, studies show that too much choice often makes for misery.

Different people have different attitude in making choice. The research targets on two types of behaviours on a linear scale for maximisers and satisficers.

Maximizers are those who always aim to make the best possible choice. They engage in more product comparisons, both before and after they made purchasing decisions, and they take longer to decide what to buy. They exert extra effort reading labels, checking out consumer magazines and trying new products. They also spend more time comparing their purchasing decisions with those of others. Owing to the diffuculties to investigate all options and the possibility that they have not really made the best choice, maximizers usually get less satisfaction although they may make better objective choices.

Satisficers are those who aim for good enough, whether or not better selections might be out there. Whenever they find an item that meets their standard, they stop looking. The term satisficers was borrowed from the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Herbert Simon.

The results of the research show that the greatest maximizers are the least happy with the fruits of their efforts. When reality requires them to compromise, i.e. to end a search and decide on something, they are worried on what might have been missed. When they compared their choice with others, they get little pleasure from finding out that they did better, but substantial dissatisfaction from finding out that they did worse. They are more prone to experiencing regret after a purchase, and if their acquisition disappoints them, their sense of well-being takes longer to recover. They also tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers do.

The reasons:

- Opportunity costs of selecting is high. One of the costs of making a selection is losing the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

- People may suffer regret about the option they settle on if it turns out the option is not the best choice.

- Adaptation dulls joy. Even for a good choice, we will get used to things, and very little in life turns out quite as good as we expect it to be. Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experience does not sustain itself.

- The curse of high expectations. The amount of choice we now have in most aspects of our lives contributes to high expectations. If your perch is high, you have much further to fall than if your perch is low.

The consequence of unlimited choice may go far beyond mild disappointment, to suffering. Americans are showing a decrease in happiness and an increase in clinical depression.

Do you want to know if you are a maximizer or a satisficer, or your rating on the maximization scale?

Professor Schwartz focused on choice in consumer products. But the issue leads me to think in the direction of the Public Choice theory, that the public should be happy if they are given the choice of their leaders by election, but in what form? What if we are given abundant choice in election, will the problem of the tyranny of choice sink in? Will we be more unhappy although we made a better choice owing to the lost opportunity cost, regret for not making the best choice, adapting too fast to the joy of the good choice, or falling from high expectation of the chosen ones. The talks of universal suffrage, expansion of electoral college, expansion of LegCo seats of both GC and FC have caused more chaos than progress.

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