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Notes from Gel: Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice

Barry Schwartz spoke on themes relating to his book, The Paradox of Choice. He was a highly entertaining but informative speaker, and makes me wish that I had more profs like him in university. I was really looking forward to his talk, and I think it was safe to say that most people found his one of the best of the conference. Below are my cleaned-up notes from his fascinating talk.

Can we have it all? No, he's going to tell us why.

His example of buying jeans at the Gap: too many choices, and after an hour, he had the best fitting jeans he'd ever purchased, but felt worse than ever about buying jeans.

So, is it good news or bad that we have choice? Answer: yes. He won't spend time on what's good about choice; the interesting question is: what's less good about more choice?

Let's examine where we have choice in our lives:

At his supermarket, there are: 285 brands of cookies, 75 iced teas, 40 toothpastes, 230 soups, 175 salad dressings, 275 cereals.

At his local Best Buy there are 110 TVs, 30 VCRs, 50 DVD players and enough components to configure 6.5 million different stereo systems.

Phone service: we now can choose from local service, long distance service, cellular phones, (ed: and VOIP). Nobody sells a phone that doesn't do too much nowadays.

Health care: drugs are marketed directly to consumers, because of the notion of "patient autonomy".

Physical appearance: there are all types of cosmetic surgery. Quotes: "When you look in the mirror, you chose to look the way you look." "Being ugly is now a matter of choice."

Marital and family arrangements: get married, or not? Have kids, or not? And when? Back in the day the default option was so powerful that it didn't occur to people that they had choice.

So here's the paradox: Americans have more freedom of choice than ever before, they are richer than ever before, but they are sadder than ever before. Depression and suicide have never been higher, and they are striking people at earlier ages.

What too much choice does:

The jams experiment. There were some number of jams available to be sampled in a supermarket. People tried them, and some number purchased at least one jam. First day: 6 jams. Second day: 24 jams. 10 times more people bought when there were 6 jams available than when there were 24.

Speed dating (or "sexual square dancing", according to Schwartz.) Participants were less likely to find a match with 10 speed dating partners than with 6.

Cconvenience stores found that reducing the number and variety of soda and snacks resulted in increased sales, with customers leaving happier.

401k investing. The percentage of a workforce participating in a 401k plan is a function of the number of mutual funds the company makes available. For every 10 funds made available, participation goes down 2%. It's so hard to figure out which funds to invest in, that people put it off.

With all this choice, people do better, but feel worse.


1. Regret and anticipated regret, or "analysis paralysis".

2. Opportunity costs: people hate the idea of missing out, because there are so many options out there, all with attractive features.

Example: offer people $2 or a good pen, and 75% choose pen. Offer people $2, one good pen, or two cheaper pens, and only 45% choose one of the pen options. The attractiveness of having two pens subtracts from having one good pen, and the attractiveness of having one good pen subtracts from having two cheaper pens, so more peoplepl choose the $2.

Opportunity costs and college grads at elite institutions: don't ask seniors what they're going to do, because they know they'll have to close doors once they walk through others. That knowledge is so paralyzing that they end up working at Starbucks (thus allowing the company to expand so prodigiously).

Opportunity costs and work stress: stress-related disease costs $300 billion per year. It comes from overwork and job insecurity, and ultimately comes from choice. You can work anywhere and any time, so whether or not to work is always a decision that is incredibly taxing.

3. Escalation of expectations. As more choices appear, our expectations of the results go up. No option is perfect, though. Satisfaction has to do with whether a product meets expectations. Quote: "Everything was better when everything was worse, because when everything was worse, it was possible for expectations to be exceeded."

So, what really makes people happy?

Close relations, because they constrain rather than free. There are certain things you can't do because you have a desire to be helpful to your close friends and family. This is a BENEFIT that circumscribes the world of what's possible. This is PROGRESS: if you don't live in a fishbowl, if everything is possible, then nothing is possible. Constraints make achievement and doing possible. The absence of constraints makes things difficult in American society.

Interestingly, the notion that constaints are a good thing rang a bell: jason Fried spoke about them as being a key pillar of 37 Signals' software development philosophy.

Embracing constraints allows one to focus on what's important in life (says Schwartz) and in software development (say the 37 Signals team).

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Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

I've done time at ESPN and FIM.

I advise WorldBlu, helping them build democratic companies.

I moderated a council for Creative Good.

And, I helped bring Barcamp, a technology un-conference, to LA, which is where I live. I am now living and working in cool cities around the world.

More about me.

Opinions stated here are mine alone.

Contact: blog -at- reemer


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