Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Paradox of Choice

Last week I read Barry Schwartz's (a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore) book The Paradox of Choice. I highly recommend reading his book, especially chapters 4 and 11, which summarize his main ideas. In a nutshell, he contends that the plethora of choices before us in modern capitalist economies often leads to chronic indecision, anxiety, unhappiness. (Sociologists may glean some elements of Durkheim from Schwartz's arguments.) In the final chapter Schwartz outlines several recommendations for how to decrease choice in your life and thus increase your overall life satisfaction. Here are some points I found particularly useful:

(1) Choose when to choose: In other words, make rules so you have fewer decisions to make. We often make rules for mundane tasks (such as "I always brush my teeth before going to bed") but not for other tasks, such as what hobbies to pursue, what clothes to purchase, and so forth. By reducing the number of decisions, you can increase your focus on those decisions you do decide to make (e.g., "Where should I move to?") and decrease your overall anxiety.

(2) Satisfice more and maximize less: That is, do not try to do the best and expect the best; rather, expect to do "good enough" while trying to do your best. Expecting to be the best will lead to anxiety and depression; after all, the "best" is almost always an illusion because there is never one metric for what constitutes the best. (Do this little experiment: compare the number of citations in google scholar for Albert Einstein's versus Anthony Giddens'. Who comes out on top? Who is the "best"?)

(3) Think about the opportunity cost of opportunity costs: Do not think about the attractive features of choices you do not make. For example, if you move decide to Florida, avoid thinking how much better the public transportation is in New York City, or how much better the universities are in Boston. Instead, focus on the warm weather, beautiful beaches, and fascinating American-Cuban culture.

(4) Cultivate non-reversible decisions: By making your decisions non-reversible, you can sink your efforts deep into what you're doing rather than thinking about what else you "should" be doing. A useful analogy is skiing: when you go skiing down hills, you decrease your chances of falling by leaning forward a bit rather than leaning back (i.e, you must commit to you decision!).

(5) Curtail social comparison: It's a good idea to obliterate social comparisons, especially upward social comparisons (which seems natural to many of us). It's always possible to find someone more successful by some standard, so it's always possible to be unhappy.

Of course, none of this easy (as Schwartz himself emphasizes)!