Book review: The Paradox of Choice

When I was a kid, danish bakers had maybe 4 different kinds of bread. Today? Forget about it. There’s french bread, italian bread, danish bread, white or whole grain, with or without spices, etc…

We are arguably living in the age of choice. There is no aspect of life that does not offer people of the western world more choice today than we had 100 years ago. Or 50. Or 10. Or just last year. And here’s the kicker: Among all these choices, we’re becoming LESS happy. Some common trends in western societies are:
* Lower satisfaction with lives
* Much(!) higher incidences of depression
* Higher suicide rates

And that’s why The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz is a tremendously important book. The choices we have are not going away – we wouldn’t want them to. This makes it crucial that we understand why more choices lead to less happiness and figure out what to do about it.

At the core of it, the reason is simple: Each new choice offers more options of choosing badly. More risk of missing an even better choice. Here’s one experiment demonstrating this: Volunteers in a psychological experiment were asked to sample and rate a number of different chocolates. One group sampled more chocolates than the other. The group that sampled the most chocolates gave the chocolates an overall lower rating, and when given a choice between money or chocolate as a reward for participating, were more likely to choose money.

One of the book’s main distinctions is between Maximizers and Satisficers. When faced with a decision, Satisficers strive to make a good decision. Maximizers, on the other hand, need to know they’ve made the best decision. They will agonize over decisions before making them, and typically regret them afterwards. Interestingly, maximizers are much more prone to ruminating on their own failings and even to bouts of depression.

Another book that deals with a similar phenomenon is Happiness by Richard Layard. This book argues that the increasing wealth of western countries does not lead to a corresponding increase in happiness – and that nations should be governed on the basis of what will make people happy, instead of what will make them rich.

Taking these two books together strengthens each argument: There is probably no more happiness to be gained from an increase in the number of choices offered us or from an increase in our wealth. Neither the choices nor the wealth is going away, so what we need to do is to learn to be happy in this situation. Sounds non-sensical, doesn’t it? Do we really need to learn to cope with wealth and choices? Well, experience tends to confirm that many people do – and that’s why Barry Shwartz’s book is so important.

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