The Paradox of Choice: A Book Review

I’ve been hearing the term, Paradox of Choice, for a while and had a basic understanding of the concept. To my understanding, it’s the idea that decisions become more stressful when we have too many options. I was thrilled when I stumbled across Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, and I’ll be sharing some of those insights with you today.

We live in a world where we have more choice than ever; for example, college majors, technology, vehicles, services, etc.

Take ordering a pizza for example. I can look at my smartphone’s app store and find dozens of pizza places to order from. I can customize the toppings that I want, the time at which it’s delivered, the price that I pay, and so much more.

While having options is nice, Schwartz reminds us that being inundated with an abundance of choice can result in psychological stress. This stress can make choosing more difficult, thus taking the joy out of having so many options.

Because there’s more choice than ever, the stakes are also higher for making the wrong choice; in fact, research shows that the more options we are given, the more likely we are to make a mistake. And that’s just basic math.

One study was conducted on a group of college students over a three week period. Two groups were given a variety of snacks to choose from during their class. One group had to choose their snacks in advance, estimating what they’d be in the mood for ahead of time. The other group was able to choose their snack at the start of each new week. When surveyed, the group who had to choose their snacks in advance reported lower satisfaction with their choices than the group that was able to choose on a weekly basis.

Another study was done using a homemade jam sale. One stand allowed patrons to sample over 20 flavors of jam and the other stand only offered 6 flavors. The stand that offered 6 flavors had more participants that ended up buying a jar of jam.

But why?

The author argues that more mental energy is used when we have too many options. When we make mistakes in choosing, we tend to blame ourselves, which can result in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and buyer’s remorse.

How do we avoid the paradox of choice?

Schwartz provides a simple solution: voluntary constraint. Instead of telling yourself, “Don’t settle for less,” consider settling for “good enough.” This can take some of the pressure off of ourselves. After all, our satisfaction with a choice naturally diminishes as we adapt to it; for example, you don’t get as excited about that brand new car now as you did at the dealership last year.

For more ideas, check out my posts on minimalism and essentialism.

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