Friday, March 23, 2007

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

It's all about adaptation.

What kind of life would we have if we were unable to make choices? Many of us equate autonomy with our ability to make the decisions that affect our lives. This autonomy, however, comes at a price. Compared to times past in this country, there are fewer constraints on our choices and more options from which to choose. Barry Schwartz contends, in this book, that this proliferation of choice in an affluent and free society actually costs us a lot.

When we choose a pair of jeans, a college education, a career, a life partner, a house, a car, we don't always get what we think we are getting. Our lives can be significantly affected by our choice, depending on how we approach it, how important it is to us, what other options are available to us.

A professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, Barry Schwartz has long been concerned about economists' assumptions about the "free market". He outlined these concerns in The Costs of Living, published in 1994. When he was later asked to write a paper for a psychology journal on the value of autonomy, he again thought about the relationship between autonomy and freedom of choice, and concluded that perhaps greater choice and greater autonomy do not lead to better lives. That germ of an idea blossomed into this book.

It isn't a book about "simplicity". It isn't about shopaholics. Schwartz isn't advocating that others make decisions for us or that we buy less. He is saying that when we are faced with so many choices at every turn of our lives we can become paralyzed and unhappy. He explores why: the challenges of missed opportunities, the regrets, how our choices suffer from comparison, and how we can never have "all the information" that we may feel we need to make the "best" choice.

He warns us about "adaptation".

For years I have known about how we adapt to our decisions but I called it something else. When deciding whether to buy a blouse I ask myself, "How long will the high last? A day, a week? Longer?" The big-ticket items tend to hold the excitement a little longer but not necessarily a lot longer. In the end, whether we buy a Mini Cooper or a Dodge Caravan, in the end a car is just a car. We don't continue to experience the excitement of ownership that we did initially. (The same is true for relationships and as a rule we are just as dense about those.)

He says that we adapt to our decisions, good or bad. So when we make a decision we may feel good about it initially, even high, but over time we adapt to it and it just becomes "everyday" to us.

Similarly, we adapt to difficult conditions, thus making them not as bad as they initially seemed. The classic illustration is that of two persons: one who just won the lottery and one who just lost two legs. At the time of the events the first person is incredibly happy and the second incredibly sad. After a relatively short time, however, both adapt and both are about equally happy.

What's smart is to recognize this adaptation ability within ourselves. It can help us anticipate the future and make better decisions. Similarly, we can make peace with all the options out there by letting go of regret and comparisons, or at least giving ourselves very little time for them.

There is a wealth of information in this little book. I find that I think about it frequently and it helps me put many situations in perspective. It also provides me with a solid basis for the way I make decisions and gives me insight into how our decision-making methods affect our whole lives.