Book Summary: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

Book Cover for The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

We often assume that more choice is better. After al, if we don’t like the added options, can’t we just ignore them? In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz explains why it’s not quite so simple.

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Key Takeaways from The Paradox of Choice

  • In recent decades, there has been a shift towards more choice, individual autonomy and freedom in many domains.
  • But more choice does not seem to make us happier — and seems to do the opposite.
    • While objective measures such as wealth have increased, subjective well-being has not.
    • We want choice, but don’t seem to like it.
    • People who are maximisers (who try to choose the very best options), are generally less happy than satisficers (who simply choose what is “good enough”).
  • What actually makes us happy:
    • Social ties seem to make us happy, even though they actually constrain our freedom.
    • Expectations and comparisons also play a role in happiness.
  • Why too much choice makes us unhappy:
    • It increases the time and effort spent making decisions.
    • More options means we have to consider more trade-offs, and considering trade-offs makes us unhappy.
    • The more options we have, the higher our expectations of how good the outcome can be, and the more likely disappointment becomes.
    • When that happens, we only have ourselves to blame.
  • What to do about it?
    • Be aware that more choice is not always a good thing.
    • Use rules and presumptions to reduce the number of decisions you make.
    • Develop your own standards for “good enough”.
    • Stop post-decision research.
    • Practise gratitude.

Detailed Summary of The Paradox of Choice

There has been a shift towards more choice in many domains

For most of human history, people didn’t really have many choices — and the ones we did face were relatively simple. Today, we face more choices than ever in multiple domains.

Some examples:

  • Consumer products. Schwartz gives an example of buying jeans in a store. He asks for “the kind that used to be the only kind” but is given a perplexing range of options.
  • Health insurance. It wasn’t that long ago that only one kind of health insurance was available to most people. Now, there are many.
  • Retirement. The shift from defined benefit plans to defined contribution has brought with it more options.
  • Medical practice. Not that long ago, medicine was very paternalistic. Doctors routinely withheld information (including crucial information) from patients and treated them like children. Patients didn’t even have the right to look at their own medical records. Today, patients are given much more responsibility for their own care, but often they don’t want this freedom/burden.
  • Career options. Schwartz teaches many talented students with multiple interests, and countless career opportunities. They tend to agonise over having to choose between many options, rather than being thrilled at it.
  • How to work. Now that people can work anywhere, they constantly face decisions like whether to check email before bed, or bring their laptop on vacation.
  • Relationships and marriage. Couples today face far more decisions than they did in the past, such as whether to live together before marriage, get married, merge their finances, have children, etc.

That shift does not seem to have made us happier

Subjective well-being has not increased

Subjective well-being has not increased in line with our increasing wealth and choices. While US GDP has more than doubled in the last thirty years, and choice has increased, the American “happiness quotient” has been steadily declining for more than a generation. Studies show that past a certain point, increases in wealth have almost no effect on happiness. [I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that — see Kahneman and Deaton (2010), which, admittedly, came out after The Paradox of Choice.]

The same downward trend exists for more specific questions— e.g. how happy are people with their marriages, jobs, financial circumstances and where they live — as well as measures of clinical depression and suicide.

Part of the reason increases in wealth and choices don’t increase subjective well-being is due to adaptation. We are much more adaptable than we think, so we tend to overestimate how happy positive events will make us and underestimate our ability to rationalise bad events. So agonising over decisions we think are important is not usually worth it, because we systematically overestimate the importance of our decisions.

We may want choice, but not like it

We always think we want choice, but when we actually get it, we may not like it. For example:

  • Cancer treatment. 65% percent of people who didn’t have cancer said they would want to choose their treatment if they got it. But of patients who actually had cancer, 88 percent said they would prefer not to choose their treatment.
  • Jam study. Researchers presented one set of consumers with 6 varieties of jam for tasting, and another set with 24 varieties. In both cases, all 24 varieties were available for purchase. Though the larger tasting set attracted more people to the table, people ended up tasting about the same number of jams on average. However, many more people in the smaller tasting set bought a jar compared to the larger tasting set (around 30% vs 3%).
  • Chocolates. Students were asked to evaluate a set of gourmet chocolates and were offered a box of those chocolates instead of cash for participating in the study. Students presented with a smaller array of chocolates liked them more, and were 4x more likely to choose chocolates over cash.

[Note: some researchers have tried to replicate both the jam and chocolate studies and failed to do so. See also Problems with “The Paradox of Choice”.]

Reversible decisions are another example of this phenomenon. People often want to keep their options open and place value on being able to reverse their choices. However, studies show that being able to change our minds makes us less satisfied with the decisions we make, and we rarely end up exercising the option to change our minds.

Recent evidence suggests that “wanting” and “liking” involve fundamentally different systems in the brain, which don’t always work together. Drug addicts desperately “want” drugs, even when the drugs provide very little pleasure. Stimulating certain areas of the brain can similarly get rats to “want” food, even though they don’t seem to “enjoy” the food as they eat it.

Maximisers are less happy than satisficers

What are maximisers and satisficers?

Maximising is when your goal is to choose the absolute best. Maximisers need assurance that every purchase or decision was the best they could have made. No one is an absolute maximiser, because it’s not possible to research every alternative all the time — but maximisers aim for the best.

Satisficing, in contrast, means your goals is to choose something that is simply “good enough”. Satisficers apply criteria and standards to their decisions— once they find something that meets those standards, they’ll stop. Note that satisficers can still have high standards — they just don’t worry about the possibility that there might be a better option out there once they’ve found something that meets their standards.

Schwartz and his colleagues devised a survey to measure where people fell on a maximisation scale. You can find a version of that survey in the book, but you can also see the questions/factors in Table 1 of his research paper here.

Empirical evidence

Maximisers may have higher standards than satisficers and may end up doing better objectively, but they tend to do worse subjectively.

Schwartz’s studies show a link between maximising tendencies and negative well-being. Participants with high maximisation scores tended to:

  • savour positive events less;
  • don’t cope as well with negative events;
  • brood or ruminate more;
  • have lower life satisfaction, were less happy, less optimistic, and more depressed (those with the highest maximisation scores were in the borderline range of clinical depression); and
  • have high regret scores.

Schwartz believes that maximising makes people miserable. If you factor in all the costs (including time and stress) of decision-making, as well as how quickly we adapt quickly to changed situations, satisficing is, in fact, the best strategy. Arguably, a “true” maximiser taking all that into account would stop the search when information seeking had reached the point of diminishing returns — but maximising is a state of mind. [This made me think of the secretary problem, where the optimal stopping strategy only has a 37% chance of getting the “best” secretary under the standard assumptions. But if you’re a satisficer applying a “threshold rule”, your chance of success increase.]

To Schwartz’s credit, he takes care to point out that his research only shows a negative correlation between maximising and well-being — it doesn’t prove causation.

What actually makes us happy

Social ties constrain us, but make us happy

The most important factor in predicting happiness is close social relations. As choice and expectations have risen, American culture has become more individualistic — perhaps because of our desire to have more control over our lives.

Marriage, friendship, family and being part of a religious institution, all limit our individual freedom at times. But these very things also seem to increase happiness. Schwartz believes that to have meaningful social relations, we have to be willing to be bound by them, even when dissatisfied. Even if we’re unhappy with a friend or family member, we don’t abruptly cut them out of our lives like we would stop buying a good or service. Instead, we usually try to work on the relationship and end the relationship only as a last resort.

We now choose our social ties

As we’ve gotten richer and freer, there’s been a substantial decline in the quality and quantity of our social relations. We used to get our social connections automatically — we had some choice, but it would be limited. Now, we have to actively choose our social ties and work to build them:

What was once given by neighborhood and work now must be achieved; people have had to make their own friends…and actively cultivate their own family connection
— Robert Lane in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies as quoted by Barry Schwartz

Counterfactual thinking

Many experiences are ambiguous, meaning we don’t know how to judge them. How we feel about a decision or experience ends up depending on what we compare it to. We can engage in either upward counterfactuals (where we imagine something better than what actually happened) or downward counterfactuals (where we imagine something worse).

Upward counterfactuals can lead to negative emotions, like regret. While upward counterfactuals push us to strive to do better, downward counterfactuals make us feel satisfied and grateful. [I wonder if high performers naturally engage in more upward counterfactual thinking, leading to both higher performance and less happiness/higher levels of depression.]

Counterfactual thinking is not usually spontaneous. Psychologists have found that counterfactual thinking is usually triggered by something unpleasant. The unpleasant thing may not be negative in absolute terms — it could just be negative relative to aspirations or expectations. They’ve also found that people rarely produce downward counterfactuals unless specifically asked to.

Social comparisons

Social comparisons are another type of information that helps us evaluate our experiences. Like counterfactuals, downward social comparisons make us feel good and boost our self-esteem, while upward social comparisons make us feel bad and lower our self-esteem.

Schwartz’s studies found that maximisers were much more affected by social comparison information than satisficers were. When maximisers were tasked with solving anagrams alongside someone who seemed better at it, their mood deteriorated. Satisficers did not show the same effect. It seems that satisficers rely on their own internal assessments to develop their standard of what “good enough” is.

Why too much choice makes us unhappy

Schwartz accepts that choice can improve the quality of our lives and give us control and autonomy, which are fundamental to well-being. He also acknowledges that restricting choice will inevitably deprive someone of the opportunity to get something that they personally value. But even if we think choice and control are good, it doesn’t follow that more choice is always better.

Schwartz argues that too much choice can overwhelm us and, paradoxically, even lead to less control. In Schwartz’s view, the key is to make good choices about things that matter while not being too concerned about things that don’t.

The ways in which more choice can make us worse-off include:

  • increasing the time and effort to make a decision;
  • making us unhappy through the mere acts of analysing, ruminating and considering trade-offs;
  • raising our expectations of how good the outcome (and, correspondingly, the likelihood of disappointment and regret);
  • leaving only ourselves to blame if the outcome ends up disappointing; and
  • (possibly) making us become maximisers.
    In this way, too much choice can end up becoming a burden.
Time and effort to make a decision

Choosing well is hard. Decisions have multiple dimensions, requiring multiple trade-offs. Choices require a prediction about the future but predicting the future is difficult. Most of our information is biased (e.g. advertising) and when we try to move beyond these biased sources, it’s too easy to get overwhelmed by an abundance of information, making it hard to choose which website to trust. Evaluating the information is not always easy, either. [Schwartz goes into some depth on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work on decision-making, biases and heuristics.]

Maximisers will consider more options before making a decision than satisficers do — a maximiser can’t be sure they’re getting the best sweater until they’ve looked at all the sweaters. Increasing the number of options therefore increases the number of things a maximiser has to look at and the time and effort they have to spend on a decision.

Social scientists have generally thought that more choice can only make us better off. Their reasoning was that those who want one of the added options will benefit, while those who don’t care can just ignore the added options. That might be true for satisficers, who aren’t really affected by an increasing number of options, but not so for maximisers.

Analysis, rumination and considering trade-offs makes us unhappy

Analysis and rumination can change our preferences and make us less happy, possibly because considering trade-offs induces negative emotions.

Studies show that when people are forced to make trade-offs — even in hypothetical, low-stakes decisions — they experience substantial negative emotion. This negative emotion can interfere with the quality of decisions. For example, people may opt to defer or avoid a decision so they don’t have to face a trade-off. (In contrast, being presented with a clearly inferior alternative makes people more likely to buy a product.)

Not only do maximisers analyse decisions more than satisficers, they don’t stop after a decision is made. Maximisers will continue to look at product comparisons even after they’ve bought the item. Beyond purchasing decisions, maximisers spend more time than satisficers thinking about “roads not travelled” and often fantasise about how their lives could be different. Despite (or maybe because of) all this analysis, maximisers generally feel less positive about their purchasing decisions and are more likely to experience buyer’s remorse.

Raises our expectations

All decisions come with opportunity costs. An opportunity cost is the value or benefits associated with the options not taken. Standard economic theory says we should only consider opportunity costs associated with the next-best alternative to the one we selected.

However, that advice can be hard to follow when there are lots of options. Decisions typically have multiple dimensions, so each foregone option may be better in some respect than the option selected. This can end up raising our expectations. We end up comparing what we picked to a hypothetical option combining the best features of all the options we gave up, even if no such option existed at all. All of this makes us less satisfied with our chosen option. And, Schwartz argues, the more options there are, the greater we feel the costs of opportunities we give up.

Only leaves ourselves to blame

If we had many options to choose from, and our choice results in a disappointing outcome, we only have ourselves to blame:

it is much easier to blame yourself for disappointing results in a world that provides unlimited choice than in a world in which options are limited
— Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice

Research on regret has shown that if things don’t turn out as we’d hoped, we are more likely to feel regret if that resulted from our own choices than if the situation were outside our control. The ability to choose therefore also makes it easier for us to regret our choices. Schwartz suspects regret may be a big part of why some people are maximisers — after all, the only way to guard against regret is to make the best possible decision.

As noted above, our social connections used to come automatically, based on the communities we were born into. Now we have to actively choose them. If we don’t manage to establish exactly the kinds of social relations we want and will blame ourselves for our failure.

(Possibly) Makes us into maximisers

Schwartz speculates that a proliferation of choices might make someone a maximiser. For example, when he went to buy jeans, he just wanted “the kind that used to be the only kind”. But after being presented with a plethora of options, he began to second-guess what he wanted.

If this speculation is true, cultures with fewer choices than the US should have fewer maximisers. Studies show that substantial differences between cultures in the available consumption opportunities have very small effects on peoples’ satisfaction with their lives. [This cuts both ways. Schwartz highlights this to show that more choices don’t necessarily increase life satisfaction. But it also suggests that more choices don’t reduce life satisfaction, either. If excess choice really does turn people into maximisers, you’d expect a negative correlation between consumption opportunities and life satisfaction. Of course, there are many other factors involved. For example, wealthier and bigger countries likely offer more choices, and maybe wealth and country size affect happiness more than availability of consumption options. To be fair, Schwartz makes clear that his speculation is just that — speculative — but I find country comparisons unconvincing here because there’s just too much going on.]

What to do about it

This part of the book was rather repetitive. Schwartz gives no fewer than 11 recommendations, but some of them are quite repetitive (even within the 11 recommendations!). For example, there’s a lot of overlap between “1. Choose when to choose”, “3. Satisfice more and maximise less” and “11. Learn to love constraints”. Other recommendations were not, in themselves, particularly actionable — e.g. “control expectations”, “regret less”.

I’ve split this out into a separate note, Can maximisers become satisficers? If so, how?, which summarises Schwartz’s suggestions with some of my additional thoughts.

Other Interesting Points

  • Too much choice also means that there’ll be less overlap between each of our experiences, and therefore fewer shared experiences. The idea of our culture becoming “stuck” has become popular in recent years, but Schwartz foresaw this all the way back in 2004:
In a decade or so, when these [television set-top] boxes are in everybody’s home, it’s a good bet that when folks gather around the watercooler to discuss last night’s big TV events, no two of them will have watched the same shows.
— Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice
  • Maximisation is different from perfectionism. While the two are correlated, they’re not interchangeable — people who scored high on perfectionism, unlike maximisers, were not depressed, regretful, or unhappy. Schwartz believes the difference is that perfectionists have very high standards they don’t expect to meet, whereas maximisers have very high standards that they do.
  • While Schwartz mostly focuses on choice overload from an individual’s perspective, he briefly discusses possible policy implications.
    • Deregulation. The rationale behind deregulation is that market forces will lead to better consumer outcomes. However, evidence suggests that most people do not actively seek the best deals, so market forces may not be as influential in driving competition and consumer benefit as commonly believed. [A counterargument is that there is evidence to suggest that even a small number of price-sensitive consumers can play a substantial role in keeping prices low.]
    • Shift the burden. Schwartz argues that the proliferation of choices in areas like health insurance and retirement plans shifts the responsibility of decision-making from institutions to individuals. An employer offering just a few retirement options may feel more pressure to vet those options whereas an employer providing 100+ options may feel they’ve discharged their responsibility. [Sure, but that’s speculative. And Schwartz contradicts himself slightly here, which I might explain in another post. ]

My Thoughts

I first read The Paradox of Choice in 2013. I was a clear maximiser at the time, carefully analysing most of my decisions and naively assuming that more choice was always better. Reading the book was a revelation, and led me to seriously question my assumptions.

I decided to reread it this year because a recent move, to a much larger market, meant I was confronted with hundreds of new choices, and I couldn’t just resort to the brands I’d always bought. A simple grocery shop could easily take me an hour.

Although revisiting The Paradox of Choice in 2023 made me dig deeper into questions such as Why should you want to be a satisficer? and Can maximisers become satisficers? If so, how?, I was disappointed to find that the book itself did not really introduce me to any new or forgotten ideas. One reason is that many of the studies and findings it describes have since been popularised in other books I’d read. For example, the book talks at length about decision-making biases, which have since been well-publicised in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) and many other books. The same is true for some of the happiness research discussed in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (2006). This is not a knock on Schwartz — it’s just that the ideas would’ve felt much fresher when The Paradox of Choice was first published in 2004.

What do you think of my summary for The Paradox of Choice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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