The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

Last week I finished Barry Schwartz‘s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, the final book in my informal study of positive psychology and the science and economics of happiness. This time, I’ll spare you the list of other books I’ve read on this topic and the other ones I intend to read over the summer.

When I wrote about The Paradox of Choice initially, I mostly wrote about how it compared to other books and why I did not enjoy reading it as much as others.

But I’d like to tell you a bit about the substance of the book, just in case you haven’t read it.

First, Schwartz uses well picked cartoons from the New Yorker throughout the book to illustrate his points. I love that about this book.

My favorite cartoon is the one that concludes Chapter Ten (Whose Fault Is It? Choice, Disappointment, and Depression). In it, two chickens are on a snowbank with penguins in the far left corner, glaciers ahead of them, and cute little chicken footprints in the snow behind them. The caption is “They never should have allowed us to be free-range.”

Well, I don’t support free-range / cage-free chickens (but that’s another story; click here to read my post about Part II of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan to find out more) but the real point of this cartoon is that given options, animals and people alike don’t always make the best decisions.

I also like some of the interesting facts I learned from this book. For example, did you know that the average sitcom now has about four fewer program minutes than it did a generation ago?

Also, Schwartz points out that we worry over decisions partly because sometimes decisions reveal something significant about ourselves.

In Part I (When We Choose), Schwartz explicitly states how overwhelming the options we face on a day to day basis are:

  • A typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items . . . and more than 20,000 new products hit the shelves every year, almost all of them doomed to failure.
  • A century ago, a college curriculum entailed a largely fixed course of study, with a principal goal of educating people in their ethical and civic traditions . . . it was a way of raising citizens with common values and aspirations. Now there is no fixed curriculum, and no single course required of all students
  • Surveys show that most people want more control over the details of their lives (more options), but most people also want to simplify their lives (usually easier with fewer options).
  • People are voluntarily switching jobs so frequently now that they can never relax and enjoy what they have already accomplished; they’ve got to keep an eye out for their next opportunity for advancement.

To sum it up, Schwartz says that the explosion of choices in modern life means that choice in many parts of our lives have gone from implicit (and often psychologically unreal) to explicit (and psychologically real), creating a burden that many of us are not aware of.

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