Problems with “The Paradox of Choice”

I liked The Paradox of Choice. I liked it enough to read it twice. Schwartz makes some excellent points that paved the way for further research, and the book has definitely impacted my life and my thinking. So, although this post outlines some problems with The Paradox of Choice — both the book and the idea — I try to do so constructively.

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Problems with The Paradox of Choice – the book

There are a few problems with the way The Paradox of Choice is written.

First off, the structure of the book was rather weak. At times, Schwartz seemed to make subtly different points, but it was hard to pick up all his nuances.

The weak structure also contributed to the next problem: confusing or inconsistent arguments. Schwartz’s argument that more choice is not always better (which I endorse) came through very strongly. However, Schwartz also acknowledges that there are some benefits to having more choice, and it wasn’t clear how he thought the balance should be struck.

In particular, I couldn’t tell whether Schwartz supports having more choice in domains that matter, such as retirement plans. Initially, his concerns about choice overload appeared to be limited to choices about trivial things:

I believe that we make the most of our freedoms by learning to make good choices about the things that matter, while at the same time unburdening ourselves from too much concern about the things that don’t.
— Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice

Not long after this, Schwartz suggests that with retirement plans, health insurance, and healthcare, governments, employers and doctors should make choices for others. These domains surely fall under “things that matter”. Yet Schwartz argues against shifting the “burden” of choosing onto the individual because the stakes are so high. Whether he is right about that, I don’t know. But I do know that it’s a much deeper policy issue, with arguments both ways. The book does not go into nearly enough detail to do the topic justice and I think Schwartz should have left it out altogether (or at least added heavy caveats).

Finally, I found The Paradox of Choice to be quite repetitive. The practical suggestions near the end were especially bad — many just rehashed Schwartz’s earlier points. (See my post, Can maximisers become satisficers? If so, how? for a summary of those suggestions.) This was a shame, because I think the book raises some interesting and counterintuitive ideas that merit a lengthy discussion. Instead of addressing them from different perspectives and responding to anticipated counterarguments, the book just repeated its points in slightly different ways.

Problems with the paradox of choice — the idea

The two main problems I had with the paradox of choice (the idea) were:

  • It’s an oversimplification of the issue; and
  • I’m not sure the idea applies beyond relatively trivial consumer decisions.


Sure, more choice doesn’t always make us happier. But sometimes it does. Like many things, it seems to depend on the circumstances.

For example, a 2003 study by Alexander Chernev found that whether an “ideal” option is available was a key factor in determining if a large assortment strengthens or weakens consumer preferences. When an ideal option was available, consumer preferences were stronger in large assortments than in smaller ones. The reasoning goes that finding an ideal option in a large assortment feels like more of a “victory” than finding the same option in a small assortment.

Studies after The Paradox of Choice was published have found the “choice overload” effect to be rather weak. The jam study and exotic chocolates study that Schwartz referred to have failed to replicate. A 2010 meta-analysis found that support for choice overload was mixed, with a mean effect size of virtually zero. (Unpublished studies were less likely to find an effect.) There was considerable variance between studies, likely due to the different conditions in studies.

Now, to be fair, Schwartz did some early work in this space. He couldn’t have known what subsequent studies would find. However, it’s still worth pointing out limitations with his ideas (with the benefit of hindsight).

There were also some ideas he may have been able to anticipate. For example, in real life, you may also be able to stagger choices to mitigate feelings of overload. I suspect there’s considerable overlap between the idea of choice overload and novelty overload. Both times I read The Paradox of Choice, I had just moved to a new country. Normally I enjoy trying new things but, faced with an unusually high number of choices to make, and deprived of the ability to just “stick with what I normally get” for many items, the choices felt overwhelming. But over time, this feeling abated and I began seeking novelty again — in more manageable doses.

Lastly, the book fails to consider how decision-aids such as filters can help simplify decisions. As the example below shows, filters only require you to consider a handful of decisions even when you have thousands of options.

Example: Using filters to choose your burger

Take the example of a burger joint that offers 6 different burgers: beef, chicken, pork, venison, falafel and mushroom.

There are several customisation options:

  • Bun (3 options): normal, wholemeal or lettuce bun
  • Cheese (4 options): none, American, Swiss or vegan
  • Extras (4 options): bacon, avocado, onions or none
  • Sauces (5 options): ketchup, mustard, aioli, BBQ or nothing.

A mere 6 decisions here gives rise to 1,440 possible combinations (6 x 3 x 4 x 4 x 5 = 1,440). And if people can choose more than one of the “extras” or “sauces”, the number of options skyrockets!

But even though your burger joint offers thousands of options, you don’t actively have to consider thousands of options. It’s not necessarily the number of options that we find overwhelming, it’s how many we have to consider at a time, since our working memories can only hold between 4 to 7 items. After the first decision — which burger to get — you’ve cut out 1,200 or 83% of the possible combinations. Deciding on your bun cuts out another 67% of your remaining combinations. That’s the beauty of filtering.

In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz describes an accounting firm that offered its employees 156 retirement plan options. He thought this was excessive, because of how complicated retirement plans are. Instead, he argues, the employer should bear the burden of choosing “good” plans for its staff:

the adding of options brings with it a subtle shift in the responsibility that employers feel toward their employees. When the employer is providing only a few routes to retirement security, it seems important to take responsibility for the quality of those routes. But when the employer takes the trouble to provide many routes, then it seems reasonable to think that by providing options, the employer has done his or her part
— Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice

Yet Schwartz ignores the fact that filtering tools and questionnaires can be, and often are, used to help people choose a suitable retirement plan. Employees don’t have to compare dozens of plans. Usually, they just have to answer a few questions about their preferences, savings goals and risk tolerance. In my opinion, this is much better than expecting employers to pick just a few “quality” plans for employees.

Later studies also support the idea that you can mitigate choice overload with decision aids. A 2015 meta-analysis found that factors such as “choice set complexity” (how complicated the options are) and “decision task difficulty” (how hard it is to make the choice) moderated the impact of the assortment size on choice overload.

Application beyond consumer decisions

My second main problem was that I’m not sure the paradox of choice applies beyond relatively trivial consumer decisions.

Weaker evidence

As noted above, some of the studies on how people make choices to buy jams or chocolates failed to replicate. But at least there was some experimental data there. On the question of whether greater individual autonomy and freedom increases or reduces happiness, the evidence is much weaker. You can’t conduct experiments randomising people’s major life decisions and freedoms, so Schwartz could only point to broad correlations. While this is understandable, he could have done more to explain the limitations of the data and address obvious competing explanations.

For example, Schwartz notes that the Amish have less choice than the average American, and have lower depression rates. Schwartz similarly worries about the high depression rates in 2000 compared to 1900. An obvious counterpoint, which Schwartz did not mention, is the lower rates of depression can often be due to underreporting.

Raises broader, more difficult questions

More generally, I feel conflicted about the idea that increase in individual freedom and autonomy has eroded the social fabric and made us less happy as a result. On one hand, I do believe there’s some truth to that. When people freely move in and out of their communities, social ties are plausibly weaker. I also find it plausible that strong social ties are a huge part of what makes us happy.

On the other hand, there’s a frequent tendency to romanticise the idea of everyone living in small, tight-knit communities. Abuse can thrive in such situations, where people are not truly free to leave. This is especially true for those with less power, such as women and marginalised groups.

Overall, I think the question of whether individualist societies lead to greater happiness than collectivist ones is a much bigger one that The Paradox of Choice can merely hint at. I do not know the answer to it, and far more research is needed to answer it even close to adequately.

Final thoughts

It’s not quite as simple as “less choice is always better”. And I don’t think Schwartz was saying this, either. But the weak structure of the book made it hard to work out exactly what Schwartz’s arguments were, and his arguments appeared to be inconsistent at times.

Like many things, it depends. It depends on what the choices available are, and whether an ideal option is available in the choice set. It also depends on how the choices are structured — whether they are staggered over time, or whether decision aids such as filtering help make choosing easier.

Lastly, Schwartz raises some broader, vexed issues when trying to extend his idea beyond relatively trivial consumer decisions. While I suspect there’s some truth in what he says, I just think the question of whether individualist vs collectivist cultures are happier is a much more complex one that The Paradox of Choice cannot come close to covering adequately.

Despite some problems, I still think The Paradox of Choice is a great read. If you want to get it, you can do so at: Amazon | Kobo. (These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through these links. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂)

3 thoughts on “Problems with “The Paradox of Choice”

  1. What about the idea that different people like different domains on which to make choices?

    What I mean is, I’m interested in finance, but I’m not that interested in pasta sauce. So I quite like having lots of retirement fund options to choose, but yes, it’s somewhat annoying having to choose from all the different pasta sauces.

    But someone else has the opposite set of preferences to me.

    To the extent that the “paradox of choice” idea resonates with people, is some of it just the fact that they are counting the downsides (when they feel overwhelmed in the pasta sauce section) and ignoring the upside?

    This is probably a really obvious idea covered in Schwartz’s book, which I haven’t read. But when people have described it to me (and suggested strong policy conclusions about limiting choice which I’m not sure Schwartz does) it seems like the point I’m raising would completely invalidate any policy relevance. (But the psychological reorientation about satisficing and maximising is still definitely relevant).

    1. Yeah, that’s a very good point. Schwartz somewhat addresses this — he points out that people maximise in different domains. However, his theory is that excessive choice makes us into maximisers. He gives a personal example of not caring much about jeans at all, until he confronted tons of jean choices in a store, and becoming slightly more of a jeans maximiser.

      The paradox of choice idea does resonate with me, so hopefully I can answer your second question. I don’t think it resonates because I’m ignoring the upside. Rather, the reverse — before I read the book, I’d ignored the downsides of too much choice, and always assumed more choice was better. So the book was a bit of revelation for me. But if you’ve always understood that too much choice comes with downsides, the paradox of choice may just sound completely obvious to you.

      Lastly, despite the idea resonating with me, I don’t believe policies limiting people’s choices is the answer. At an individual level, I like the idea of decision rules and deliberately limiting your own choices to simplify your life — but that’s all voluntary, and you can choose which domains to apply decision rules to. At a policy level, I think things like decision aids and good default options are a much better solution than limiting choices in any domain. Schwartz doesn’t really address this in any detail, though. The policy implications are definitely a weaker, less fleshed-out part of the book.

  2. Thanks. I see that having lots of choice could make us maximisers.

    You’re also right that probably the default position we have is that choice is always good, and that is probably my default view. So a book on the downsides is worthwhile if they were otherwise ignored.

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