Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice
Psychologist Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.
Barry Schwartz studies the link between economics and psychology, offering startling insights into modern life. Lately, working with Ken Sharpe, he’s studying wisdom.
“Nowadays, everything is very much up for grabs. I teach wonderfully intelligent students, and I assign 20 percent less work than I used to. And it’s not because they’re less smart, and it’s not because they’re less diligent. It’s because they are preoccupied, asking themselves, “Should I get married or not? Should I get married now? Should I get married later? Should I have kids first, or a career first?” All of these are consuming questions. And they’re going to answer these questions, whether or not it means not doing all the work I assign and not getting a good grade in my courses. And indeed they should. These are important questions to answer. Work — we are blessed, as Carl was pointing out, with the technology that enables us to work every minute of every day from any place on the planet — except the Randolph Hotel.” ~ Barry Schwartz
Why you should listen
In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice , 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 argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness.
Schwartz’s previous research has addressed morality, decision-making and the varied inter-relationships between science and society. Before Paradox he published The Costs of Living, which traces the impact of free-market thinking on the explosion of consumerism — and the effect of the new capitalism on social and cultural institutions that once operated above the market, such as medicine, sports, and the law.
Both books level serious criticism of modern western society, illuminating the under-reported psychological plagues of our time. But they also offer concrete ideas on addressing the problems, from a personal and societal level.
What others say
“Whether choosing a health-care plan, choosing a college class or even buying a pair of jeans, Schwartz shows that a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us.” — Publisher’s Weekly