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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Counterintuitive Science - Paradox Of Choice

Imagine a world where you have absolutely no say over anything, not even your own life.

Someone up there controls everything.

The only thing you can do is to follow the Plan.

Or die.

It's your "choice".

Sounds pretty dreary, doesn't it?

Now contrast that with another hypothetical world - where you can choose from thousands of lifestyles and millions of products. You have the freedom to make every decision in your life, big or small, unfettered by powerful authority figures.

More choice, more happiness.

Well, that sounds positively lover-ly! Perhaps it would be paradise.

Not so, says psychologist Barry Schwartz.

Too many choices can actually immobilize a person from making a decision. In addition, no matter what choice a person makes, it is easy to imagine that there is an even better choice out there, resulting in feelings of self-blame, dissatisfaction and regret.

Here, check out his talk:

Dr. Schwartz has an interesting perspective, but I don't agree with everything he noted.

His point about the mind-boggling variety of consumer goods is spot-on. It's a situation that is difficult to avoid in a free-market society.

However, unless a person has gobs of money, budget limitations alone will help eliminate a lot of these options. For a grad student like me, it's much easier to make that decision - the cheapest item will suffice. Some people will always have trouble deciding while some others don't. I'm not yet convinced that this is an significant cause of clinical depression and suicide.

Also, he seems to be arguing that social conventions are important to help free individuals from being overwhelmed with decisions. That may be true, but who then gets to decide these social conventions, and how will they enforce it? It seems to me that the high quality of living enjoyed by developed nations is at least partly due to the diminishing power of social forces that used to dominate over personal freedoms.

In addition, I would like to add two more comments:

1. Significance Of Choice

George Carlin says this best:

Oh, and freedom of choice, this is the big one, the illusion of choice, we're led to feel free by the exercise of meaningless choices.

There are, for instance, important things — not too many choices, unimportant things-ice cream flavors, what do you want, we've got 31, the flavor of the week, the flavor of the month, but political parties-we're down to two, jeez.

Sources of information, media companies down to five, banks, insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, chemical companies, oil companies-used to be seven, down to three, pretty soon it's gonna be two.

But if you’re lookin' for a bagel or a fuckin' donut, hey, what do you want-pineapple supreme, hazelnut; we've got everything you want. Cereals, I counted, personally in the store counted 192 different cereal choices, 192. 140 different cat foods, I counted, and that includes a tartar-control cat food for senior citizen cats, okay?

Dr. Schwartz thinks that "we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare", but what are the types of options that are being considered? Like Carlin, I believe that some of the most important choices that impact our lives (such as sources of reliable information) are still sorely lacking.

We can benefit from a wider selection of important choices.

2. Semblance Of Choice

As I mentioned at the start of the post, "do or die" is an obvious semblance of choice, but it can also be more subtle.

Sometimes when a person hits a bad patch, she might look back and wonder what would have changed if she had made a different decision at a critical juncture in her life.

This sort of reflection is usually made with the benefit of hindsight, and it gives a semblance of choice that person never had at that point in time.

To give a personal example, there are times during grad school that I've wondered how I ended up where I am today. Perhaps I should have stayed in Canada, perhaps I should have continued to be an research assistant, perhaps there is another more ideal ( imaginary?) career for me.

Perhaps perhaps perhaps.

Yet when I look back and examine the key decisions I made, based on the limited information, resources and opportunities I had at that time, there was simply no better alternative. Without the benefit of hindsight, I would have made exactly the same decision again.

Where I imagined I had many choices, the reality was that there was usually only two (or less!)

So it's entirely possible that people can feel unhappy if they believed that they had many choices in the past, even when that is not the case in reality.

Even if we can somehow restrict their choices by social convention, it will not necessarily ease their feelings of self-blame and dissatisfaction.


Still, I generally agree with Dr. Schwartz about how more choices can lead to overinflated expectations and increased self-blame.

Some choice is better than no choice.

But more choice is not necessarily better.

Oddly enough, having many choices can stop you from making a choice.