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The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.
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(Photo: andreiz/Flickr)

(Photo: andreiz/Flickr)

Ten years have passed since the publication of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, a highly influential book written by the psychologist Barry Schwartz. If the title doesn’t sound familiar, the idea behind Schwartz’s argument should: Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. Whether you’re deliberating between breakfast cereals, TV shows, career paths, pension plans, or lifetime partners, the amount of options out there can be overwhelming. In modern America, however, the freedom to decide who you are and who you’re going to be is mandatory.

While Schwartz doesn’t claim he discovered the setbacks of excessive choice, The Paradox of Choice is perhaps our best articulation of the overall problem. In the book, for example, he explores the stress people feel when confronted with ample opportunity, and the regret that follows from choosing poorly (whose fault is it other than mine?). He also discusses our loss of presence (why am I doing this when I could be doing that?), our raised expectations (with so many options, why settle for less?), and our tarnished sense of self that comes from comparing our choices with the choices of others (why do I continue to pick the wrong things when Alex always picks the right ones?). In sum, Schwartz’s work poses a serious challenge to the notion that more choice brings about more freedom, and more freedom brings about more happiness. As the book’s subtitle implies, sometimes a lot is simply too much.

"Nobody makes plans because something better might turn up, and the result is that nobody ever does anything."

Over the past decade, the ideas presented in The Paradox of Choice have not run dry. In 2010, for instance, the New York Timespublished an article titled "Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze," in which Schwartz makes an appearance. Just last August, the New Yorkerposted an online piece titled “When It’s Bad to Have Good Choices,” which, again, also mentions Schwartz. If anything, it seems the proliferation and social acceptance of Amazon, smartphones, and online dating has only exacerbated this phenomenon.

To find out more, I recently spoke with Schwartz about his book, his critics, and what has and hasn’t changed since 2004.

Over the past decade, do any particular events, trends, or general changes in the culture stick out to you as suggesting that The Paradox of Choice was right?

Well, it seems to me that the most striking trend is the appearance of social media. My suspicion is that it and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough and you’re always worried you’re missing out. I see this as an extension of what I wrote about at a time when it wasn’t really going on much.

Are you familiar with the fairly recent term “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out)?

Oh yeah, of course. It seems to me that it’s a perfect description. I wish I had thought of that term 10 years ago.

Now, it’s just commonplace. I bet it’s especially bad in places like New York. Nobody makes plans because something better might turn up, and the result is that nobody ever does anything.

How else does social media encourage the problem of too much choice? Don’t you think it can increase social ties, and therefore help mitigate negative feelings?

I don’t see it. I think what it’s mostly done is lower our standards for what counts as social ties.

And it does something else, too: We evaluate ourselves by comparing ourselves to other people. Well, if you compare yourself to other people in life, you get to see their good moments and bad moments. But if you’re comparing yourself to other people on Facebook, well, everyone is a superstar on Facebook. The result is you feel that your life is duller and duller, shabbier and shabbier. You seem less and less special, less and less competent, because everyone else is living this perfect life.

On balance, I don’t see social media as promoting intimacy at all.

Would you say the influence of friends and acquaintances on social media is more powerful than the influence of traditional branding and corporate advertising?


Oh, there’s no doubt about it.

Is that because we’re not as suspicious that people on social media might be trying to sell us stuff, or aware that some people are backed by sponsors?

And when it finally surfaces, it undermines the very notion of friendship.

But you really shouldn’t be talking to me about this stuff. I’m almost 70 years old, and it’s quite possible that people your age and younger are not bothered by this and will find a way to fix what’s bad about it. The potential is enormous. And it seems as though the first pass is always the shabbiest version. It can easily get better.

In The Paradox of Choice, you describe how our tendency to adapt to new things often dampens our initial excitement over buying a novel item or receiving a raise at work, etc. Does it follow that we, as a society, will simply learn to adapt to an environment filled with abundant choice?

You’d think so, but I don’t see much evidence of that. I teach very smart, talented young people, and I see them completely paralyzed by the choices they face. I don’t know enough about their lives to know if they’re paralyzed when shopping for jeans, but they’re sure paralyzed when it comes to deciding what to do when they graduate. The whole world is open to them. They have to pick something, and they don’t know how to do it.

Is there any sense that the Internet and the rise of customer review sites have assisted in the process of making a decision?

Well, who reviews the reviewers? I don’t find reviews particularly helpful because they’re contradictory, and I don’t know anything about who’s writing them or what their criteria are. When I read reviews while trying to decide which hotel to stay at in a place I haven’t been to before, I’m invariably more confused at the end of reading the reviews than I was at the beginning. Every place is five-stars or one-star. What the hell are you supposed to do? Pitch a tent on the beach, I guess.

Does anything else stick out to you as suggesting that the arguments you made over a decade ago are still relevant?

All I can say is that there’s no domain I can think of where the choices people face have been restricted. There are many more domains where choice has been extended, because that’s what people want.

If the proliferation of choice has only accelerated since 2004, does that mean rates of anxiety and depression are also on the rise?

I have no idea. I don’t think having a lot of choice is what creates sadness and depression; I think sadness and depression happen when you combine all this choice with incredibly high standards. That’s really what does people in. But you have to be careful, because something as complicated as depression doesn’t have a single cause.

Over the past decade, do any particular events, trends, or general changes in the culture stick out to you as suggesting that The Paradox of Choice was wrong?

In academic literature, there have been a couple of papers published that question how generalizable the choice problem is. Some studies show the effect I wrote about. Some of them show the opposite effect—people like more choice, and they end up doing better and feeling better. If you put all these studies together and look for an average effect, the average effect is no effect. But that’s not because these studies have no effect; almost every study has an effect. It’s just that sometimes choice is paralyzing, and sometimes it’s liberating, and we don’t know what determines which direction it’ll go in, yet. So I don’t think we can say unequivocally that too much choice is bad, because we don’t know the limits to that. But in some circumstances, too much choice is bad.

This is just the nature of science. We think we understand something, and we almost always overstate what we think we understand. New work comes out and we put limits on our earlier statements. This is what’s called progress, not pseudo-science.

Earlier this year, you wrote an elegant response on PBS to your critics who claim the problem of choice is akin to pseudo-science. Can you elaborate on what you said?

This is just the nature of science. We think we understand something, and we almost always overstate what we think we understand. New work comes out and we put limits on our earlier statements. This is what’s called progress, not pseudo-science.

But if our abundance of choice really does lead to depression and, in some cases, a loss of revenue for corporations, wouldn’t these corporations make a larger effort to remove options instead of continually adding more?

There are a couple points to be made. First, sometimes people proliferate options for completely irrelevant reasons. For example, some years ago I gave a talk at a national supermarket conference, and someone pointed out that a lot of what goes on in supermarkets is a battle for real estate. You want X feet of shelf space in the market because the more you have the less your competitor has. One way of doing that is by proliferating options. If Pepsi makes 12 different soft drinks and they’re all going to have some shelf space, that’s shelf space that Coke doesn’t have. It’s a huge battle for linear feet. So, to some degree, Pepsi doesn’t even care whether some of their products make money, because they’re there basically to preempt Coke.

The other thing is that ideology dies hard. If you’re what you might call a market fundamentalist—if you think that markets work, that competition is good, and that freedom of choice is bound to make people better off—then you’re just not going to see contradictory evidence unless your face is rubbed in it. There are examples of places that have limited their options and seen business go up.

Many problems you describe in The Paradox of Choice are systemic and wide-ranging, yet the solutions you propose—pay less attention to others, lower your expectations, impose self-restraint, be grateful—are all very individualistic. With a decade of hindsight, have you thought of any other solutions that might get to the root of the problem?

I just don’t see that this country has the political will to do anything systemic. So, it seems to me that the best you can do is ask, “How can I defend myself against this problem? How can I change if the world is not going to change?” I mean, can you imagine passing legislation that says you can only have 12 kinds of cereal in the supermarket? It’s just not happening. At the moment, I just think this is a losing proposition.

In other societies, such as Britain and the Netherlands, you see more willingness to have government agencies take insights from psychology and use them to make policies effective. They don’t set the policies, but if the elected representatives have a policy that wants people to consume fewer calories, they can turn it over to these experts to figure out how to make that happen effectively, without forcing it on people. We’re substantially behind other societies in our willingness to let experts engineer the environment to make it easier for people to do what’s in their best interest and harder for them to do what’s not in their best interest.

Are Americans just distrustful of authority?

There’s a deep anti-intellectualism in America, so if you call yourself an expert then, right away, two-thirds of the country hates you. There’s that.

There’s also this notion that freedom is the highest good, and government is the enemy of freedom. People are blind to all of the ways in which government programs enable freedom, rather than impede it. And I must say that the side of the political spectrum that favors government intervention has done a terrible job of pointing out to people how much better our lives are because of things the government does.

Again, this may change. I think it might take a really major, almost catastrophic, series of events to get the kind of sea change that I think we need. I thought maybe the economic collapse might do it, but I guess we recovered too fast.

Any closing thoughts?

I’m just delighted that these issues are still alive. I mean, the shelf life of ideas tends to be pretty short, and the book is 10 years old and people are still talking about the issues. So I feel that’s a real sign that the arguments I made hit a nerve, and I’m really gratified by that.