freedom of choice

choice 2

One of the stories I was fond of telling was of the time that Derek King, upon his release from the Florida prison system, was initially paralyzed by the breath of choice in toothpastes he confronted in the first Wal-Mart he visited. I used to tell that story to illustrate the effects of the prison system’s practice of proscribing normal behavior and controlling every action in an inmate’s life. Inmates are told when to do things and how to do them. Not good training when personal initiative is the only way to survive on the outside.

Now it turns out that I’ve discovered I have been wrong, at least to a degree. This paralysis is a condition that, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz, affects all of us. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has made us all not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.

In his 2005 TED talk (which takes about 20 minutes), Barry Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: why is it that societies of great abundance—where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before—are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression?

Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: he makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable.

Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz says; it is exhausting to the human psyche. Whether we’re buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions—both big and small—have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented.

We assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.

Things were better is the “good old days” of limited choice because there was always a chance you would be pleasantly surprised by what you’d get. With today’s marketing of 285 varieties of cookies at the typical grocery store, 230 soups, 175 salad dressings, 40 toothpastes, and 6.5 million choices of stereo components at the consumer electronics store, your expectation is to get it right—to get it perfect—every time. But things are rarely perfect. “The secret of happiness,” says Schwartz, “is low expectations.”

In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz explains at what point choice—the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish—becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. He shows how the dramatic explosion in choice—from the mundane to the profound challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs—has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution.

In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz makes the counterintuitive case that eliminating choices can greatly reduce the stress, anxiety, and busyness of our lives. We would be better off if we:

  1. Voluntarily constrained our freedom of choice.
  2. Sought “good enough” instead of “the best.”
  3. Lowered our expectations about decision’s results.
  4. Made nonreversible decisions.
  5. Paid less attention to what others around us do.

In the final chapter, he offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on the important ones and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices you have to make:

  1. Choose when to choose.
  2. Be a chooser, not a picker.
  3. Satisfice more; maximize less.
  4. Consider the opportunity costs of opportunity costs.
  5. Make your decisions nonreversible.
  6. Adopt an “attitude of gratitude.”
  7. Regret less.
  8. Anticipate adaptation.
  9. Control expectations.
  10. Curtail social comparisons.
  11. Learn to love constraints.

I have chosen to dramatically limit my available choices by living alone at Estrella Vista. It has worked for me. I have never been happier.

choice 1

My secret to happiness: Be satisfied with what you’re going to get anyway.


Groove of the Day

Listen to A Perfect Circle performing “Freedom of Choice”


1 Response to “freedom of choice”

  1. April 6, 2014 at 1:40 am

    Some good points, but they are nothing new and have been with us for a long time. Perhaps we just don’t realize they apply to many things. I remember one of the rules of good web design was not to have more than 7 links/choices per page as it is confusing. Men always say you should not give yourself away as promising to your girlfriend (or boyfriend these days :)), so you keep her expectations low. Etc.

    For me, there are two major problems with the so called “freedom of choice”:
    1) Less time
    Modern people have less and less time to deal with choices. Technology has brought us 24 h slavery in an 8 h work day. First the laptops introduced working from home and now smartphones are making us work even while taking family to a park or going to a loo. One could argue that smart phones are for stupid people, accepting to lose any free time. In such an environment, spending more than 10 seconds to choose things in a shop is frustrating. Not to mention looking for a parking space (which is why smart people prefer bikes ;)). Lack of time for your family and yourself will inevitably lead to depression. Those who have been “there” know that money is of no use if you don’t have the time to spend it. Which is why they gave us online shopping.

    2) There is no real choice
    If you were to take a closer look at the so called “choice”, especially when it comes to groceries, you would realize the choice is just an illusion. Everything on offer is made by 5-10 huge corporations which control everything. So, we are only fooled into believing we have a choice, because we like to live in that fairytale. The truth is, we are all more robots making those corporations extremely rich and powerful, able to avoid the laws and regulations and push new ones (that will bring them more money for providing products and services of worse quality).

    Finally, as a 2b) I would add that choice is made even worse with various “policies” by the magic trio – the manufacturer, the middle man and the shop owner. They often make it impossible for you to find your favourite brand/model in “any” shop. Simply to make you try other “brands” which actually belong to one and the same corporation.

    So yes, spending time to “choose” is a waste. You’re much better off throwing your mobile away and enjoying the time with friends/family. Travel, do sports, have a conversation. The real one, where your lips move and sound comes out of your mouth. 😉

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