08.12.07 Fear is the path to the dark side…

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

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About ifarmurban

Project Manager residing in sleepless Seattle.
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4 Responses to 08.12.07 Fear is the path to the dark side…

  1. Pingback: Book Reviews: Your Choice « Net-Centric Economics

  2. jwliston says:

    When we saw the video clip of this guy he left a pretty strong impression in my mind. I thought he seemed like a cranky old man that always thought the past was better. Looking through rose-colored glasses at a time he remembers as free of too many choices. After reading your review I ‘m really glad I didn’t chose that book. I wanted to write at least one positive review.
    If I’ve learned anything in my life it is that people can never be easily categorized. They never fit neatly into one group or another but are always an amalgamation of all and can only tend to one group or another. I am always wary of people who want to force the square peg in the round hole.
    It seems as if his arguments against choice suffer from an overabundance of thought. Maybe if he took his own advice and limited himself he wouldn’t have as much of a problem with choice. I really can’t understand having a problem with having lots of options but that is just one man’s opinion.
    But of course the most important part of any review is quoting the wise and wonderful Yoda. You can never go wrong with that logic.

  3. Nancy Dick says:

    I was intrigued by your comment in class about maximizers and satisfiers; I think at different times and circumstances we can change categories. Where I find choice to be sometimes paralyzing is in the relatively unimportant, every day decisions at the grocery store.

    Perhaps that’s because with a significant decision (such as what kind of car or computer to buy), we’re more invested in it. I dislike wandering the aisles of the grocery store, especially when tired after work: you no sooner decide what brand of bleu cheese dressing to buy than you’re confronted with 20 varieties of bagged salad.

    I found Buzz’s comment in class about moving from a culture of buying things to one of buying experiences somehow uplifting. Don’t we Americans already have enough *stuff*, and aren’t we getting tired of managing it? (And what about sustainability of finite resources?) I suppose one could just as easily be overwhelmed with choice in experiences: which ecotour to take, which concert to attend, etc. I do think we are beginning to backlash against our possessions; after awhile they possess us. I know a few people who have more than one home, and it seems they’re always dealing with one kind of household-managing headache or another.

    Re your comment about a Christian-dominant society: we Americans have heeded the preachers (i.e. advertisers) by worshipping faithfully at the altar of consumerism!

    Well-written review, by the way.

  4. kegill says:

    Randa, this is an excellent review of Schwartz!

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