What is the Paradox of Choice?

The technical definition

Researcher and author, Barry Schwartz, has made a name for himself by promoting a theory we all have experience with whether we know it or not: the paradox of choice. His theory is a simple one with far reaching impact. He proposes too many choices limits one’s freedom.

Huh, what does that mean?

Choice is overwhelming. It requires work. While it seems that the more diverse the menu at dinner, the more freeing the eating experience should be, the opposite is really true. If the menu is set, you don’t have to think about it. And that freedom, freedom from the stress of decision making, is worth more than we think. We shop in stores that sell such varied wares that just picking a kind of toothpaste can take fifteen minutes. Contrast that with the ‘General Store’ of 100 years ago. There was one kind of everything. If you needed it, you got it, you did not have to decide which version of what you needed would suit you best. The paradox of choice is that the diversity of our choices cause us stress and, ultimately, a feeling of trapped unhappiness.

If you have ever purchased anything, you have experienced the paradox of choice. You stand in front of racks of clothes you don’t want to try on at Target and wish there were simply two racks.  One marked: pants. One marked: shirts. While it may seem that the choices make the process more exciting, and perhaps they do, they also make the process more time consuming and bathed in a latent stress. Another irony is that choice places the onus on the chooser. If you have one choice, you take what you get. If you have multiple choices and end up dissatisfied with the choice you made…well, then there is really only one person to blame.

The paradox of choice does not apply only to consumer goods. We, as a society, have far more choices than previous generations. Women are not expected to marry. No one is expected to choose one career and stick with it until they retire. There are many options open to us, but that leaves us constantly asking ourselves if we chose the “correct” option. The expectations set for us before may have been stifling, but there was a certain comfort in them. It was out of our hands. If we didn’t like the hole we were ‘pigeoned’ into, it was not our fault. It was society’s fault. Now, if you choose to place career before family and find yourself regretting it as you watch your peers raise their children, there is regret and the obvious thing to do is to blame yourself.  It was, after all, your choice.

How do I use this in my life?

The best way to use this understanding is by trying to subvert it. Many societies are drowning in choice. Constant decisions are required. Unlike our grandparents, we don’t end the day satisfied that we did a good job, we end it by checking our email ‘one more time, just in case.’ If you are aware of the effect that choice has on you, you can try to negate it. Stress less over simple decisions, and be resolute in larger decisions. This is a relatively new problem for our species, and the fallout is happening as we speak. Be aware of the way your choices make you feel and choose wisely.

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