Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice
Why More is Less
by Barry Schwartz

This book was published in 2004. At that time, it was a hit. The book summed up the results of some researches on the psychology of decision making, that the abundance of choices in the modern world had made the decision made less satisfying. Books came and went. Last year I found an used one selling at $20 at a charity stall. It was really value for money. Making a decision on buying it was satisfying, there being no other choice at that time. However, the book took me a long time to read. It seems much more information are now available on the Internet which require more time to explore. For this one, at least I tried to finish reading it before books become an endangered species.

In 2004, I thought just before the publishing of this book, Barry Schwartz had an article on a science journal, perhaps for the purpose of drumming up his book. The article was The Tyranny of Choice. I had some reading notes on it in my blog which were in fact materials in the first few chapters of the book.

Tyranny of choice 14 June 2004. Too much choices may give you trouble and less satisfaction. But it depends on your personality that whether you are a maximizer or a satisficer.

Maximization scale 14 June 2004. A self test questionnaire that may help you identify yourself your position on the maximization scale, i.e. whether you are a dedicated maximizer or a balanced consumer.

Advice on choice 18 June 2004. Some useful tips on choice making. The purpose is not to let you make choice easier, but just to relieve the sense of guilt from making a wrong decision or be content with the choice you made.

The author gave a detailed account in the book of what affects us in making choice and also what affects us in not making choice. Such dilemma of choosing between two or more comparable products or services, or choosing between many evils, may have a detrimental effect on our mental health. The satisfaction of making a choice is affected by many phenomenon. Some apparent ones identified are the opportunity costs, social comparison, expectation and adaptation. To maintain a balanced mind when making or not making choice, the author offered some useful pointers on what to do about choice.

1. Choose when to choose
To manage the problem of excessive choice, we must first decide which choices in our life really matter and focus our time and energy there, and just let many other opportunities pass us by. By restricting our options, we will be able to choose less and feel better.

2. Be a chooser, not a picker
A picker is forced to pick one thing among several laid on the table. A chooser knows what he really wants to do with something and chooses one that fits the purpose. If there is none that does, a chooser may create better options that do.

3. Satisfice more and maximize less
Be a satisficer and settle for just good enough. This is easy said than done because settling for just good enough could mean losing the better alternatives, if there is any. But to maximize and search for the best is very demanding on time and resources, sometimes to the point that it isn't worth it. However, being a satisficer is a state of mind that either comes with one's personality or requires some mental training.

4. Think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs
Opportunity costs are high especially where there are a lot of options. You will be losing other, just presumably better, opportunities once a decision is made. Considering opportunity costs is already opportunity cost in itself. To lower the cost which may lead to less satisfaction, one may consider the strategies of limiting options such as: Unless truly dissatisfied, stick with what you always buy; Don't be tempted by the new and improved versions; Don't scratch unless there is an itch; Don't worry that you will miss out on all the new things the world has to offer. 

5. Make your decisions non-reversible
When one is dissatisfied with a choice, there may be a mental process of reversing the decision and choose again. If a decision is not reversible, such as many important decisions we made in our life, we may learn to accept and thus increase the satisfaction.

6. Practice an attitude of gratitude
We could vastly improve our subjective experience by consciously striving to be grateful for what is good about a choice. We normally do the reverse by thinking about how good the alternatives are, but take the present good choice for granted. The attitude of gratitude may need a little practice.

7. Regret less
The pain of regret has impact on choice and sometimes influences us to avoid making decisions at all. To lessen the effect of regret, we may try to adopt the standards of a satisficer more, reduce the number of options to be considered, and practice gratitude on the good side rather than focus on disappointments. 

8. Anticipate adaptation
We always adapt to the satisfaction of a decision, and it becomes less satisfying with time. This is called the "hedonic treadmill" which may lead to regret. We cannot prevent adaptation, but we can anticipate adaptation and develop realistic expectations.

9. Control expectations
Our evaluation of experience is substantially influenced by how it compares with our expectations. A way to increasing satisfaction with the results of decisions is to remove excessive high expectations about them. This can be done by reducing the options, be a satisficer and also allow for serendipity.

10. Curtail social comparison
We evaluate the quality of our experience by comparing ourselves to others. Though social comparison can provide useful information, it often reduces our satisfaction. So by comparing with other less, we will be satisfied more.

11. Learn to love constraints
As the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice becomes a tyranny of choice. One way to deal with the problem is to view limits on the possibilities we face as liberating not constraining. Society has rules, standards and norms for making choices. Individual experience creates habits. By deciding to follow a rule (such as wearing seat belt), we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again. This kind of rule-following frees up time and attention that can be devoted to thinking about choices and decisions.

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