Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Ecco.
Barry Schwartz’ latest book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less appears to be the culmination of at least a dozen years of writing on society from a pessimistic perspective. The titles have been as compelling as Paradox; The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life (1994); Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom (2000); Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice (2002); Competing for welfare: The idea that choice will enhance the NHS is a myth (2004). All of this and more awaits you in The Paradox.
I looked forward to reading The Paradox. Mr. Schwartz caught me on the first page of his prologue, “about six years ago, I went to the Gap to buy a pair of jeans…Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?” She replied. ‘Do you want stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?’ I was stunned.” Who cannot relate? There is clearly a saturation point on choices and as he says, some choice is good and a lot is overwhelming. There are also, as he points out, potential benefits to having fewer options and begs the question, what are we overlooking in the name of freedom of choice?
The four classic aspects to this question are broken down in his book; when, how, why and what. When are we able to make a choice? When we are confronted by two options or thirty options? How are we able to make a choice, what is our process, what influences our final decision, fatigue or our personality type? With business shifting the responsibility to the consumer, one is now required to be an expert researcher in all areas: career, health care, pension, utilities, love, religion and ultimately our identity. It is no wonder the bulk of the book is spent on the third section; Why We Suffer. In the last, shortest section of the book, he advises what we can do about it.
I expected him to finger the Web with guilt in ramping up choice, but he didn’t. However, in his exploration of how we choose, Mr. Schwartz does decry the Internet as a decision aid; “…as a (information) resource it (the Internet) is democratic to a fault”. Where other books we have read earlier this quarter applaud choice by mass referral, in Deciding and Choosing, it is clear he believes that the only logical influence should be independent authorities such as Consumer Reports. Surowiecki’s Wisdom of the Crowds (2004) may not be high on Mr. Schwartz’ own suggested reading list (or maybe it simply wasn’t published yet). Apparently he does not share this current, popular belief. Rather he delves into the psychological influencers of decision making.
While I did not agree with all his assertions, in some of what he had to say truth resonated with my own experience. Dividing the world into choosers: Maximizers and satisficers, he touched a sore spot. How to chose when only the best will do? While he does say that most folks have a bit of both; one maximizes their chance of success in one area while simply satisfying a need in another, he states basically we are all either one or the other. Maximizers are those who need to explore many of the choice options to find the best, as opposed to those satisficers who are happy with an “okay” choice. Less investment in the outcome makes for a happier person.
This is not the only aspect of choice causing America’s increased depression. Personally, I became more depressed as I read on. The book read like a self-help book for society whose first step was to realize they had not only a problem; it was actually a swarming hive of really messy problems. Amongst lack of control, “missed opportunities”, class envy, regret over bad decisions, comparison (envy again) was the challenge of adaptation. (Have we covered all the seven deadly sins yet?) Should we adapt to our situation and rise to a new state of “being”, we are bound to eventually ignore this state of bliss, sink into forgetful complacence and desire the next, hedonistic option anew. So why hope? Indeed, his last section of optimism, exactly sixteen pages long, (less than six percent of the book) is as stripped down as he suggests we reduce our options in order to find happiness. It was like watching tiny, insignificant hope arise from the Pandora’s box after all the evils were let out into the world.
I had two over riding thoughts while I read Mr. Schwartz’ book. One, the Christian faith’s prime tenement is to give over control to a higher power. Now, if we Americans live in a Christian dominant society, how can he advise that America is in despair over lack of control? Two, just by focusing so much of his writing and this book on despair and pain, by concentrating on the darkness, he is compounding the problem he pursues to alleviate.
I suggest you read the last chapter first, then the first chapter and then the rest of the book. Afterward, if you want something to bring you back from the edge, try going to church the next Sunday or read Simple Abundance, A Book of Comfort by Sarah Ban Breathnach. Simple Abundance has more of the wee bit of hope Mr. Schwartz refers to in the end of his book.
” Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering” – Yoda, Star Wars- Episode 1