Clobbered By The Cornucopia


Why More Is Less

By Barry Schwartz

Ecco -- 265pp -- $23.95

Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less is like an intellectual house of mirrors. Those exposed to this social-psychological vision of American life may experience a dawning shock of recognition, first exclaiming, "That's not me" and then admitting, "Oh, yes it is." That's because Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, describes case after case of people who say they like to have options but who, in almost every sphere of life, are overwhelmed by the necessity of choosing from a vast and growing number of alternatives. This, he says, accounts in large part for why so many people tell pollsters they are unhappy despite living in a world of abundant possibility.

Here are some examples from the oppressive cornucopia of consumer choices. Supermarkets confront customers with an avalanche of selections: Chunky Monkey, Heath Bar Crunch, or chocolate chocolate chip frozen yogurt? And that's just the beginning, as is clear to anyone who has had to pick from among an employer's health-care alternatives, thought about switching from AT&T (T ) to Sprint (FON ), considered a course of college study, mused about buying a computer, flipped past the dozens of cable-TV offerings, or puzzled over 401(k) investments. Even love has become a burden, Schwartz asserts, with "ever greater tolerance of romantic diversity" resulting in "another set of choices to occupy our attention and fuel our anxieties." As for religion -- well, the sky's the limit.

The Paradox of Choice may be seen as a rival to Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox (2003), an upbeat account that argues that Americans have never had it so good. This means that time-pressed folks face yet another conundrum -- which of these books to read?

It's a dilemma ripe for Schwartzian analysis, and here's how it tends to play out. You could begin by examining BusinessWeek's reviews to see which volume appeals more. Having decided, some time later you go to the bookstore, where you meet a friend who tells you: "Oh, no -- the other book is much more insightful." So you change your mind. This, says, Schwartz, would be an example of how the most recent recommendation, particularly if offered in a vivid, anecdotal manner, tends to trump earlier counsel, even if that's more informed. It's what social scientists call the "availability heuristic."

O.K., ready to go to the checkout counter? Not so fast -- what about price? Suppose, in comparison to some novels you walk past, both books strike you as a bit expensive. Can you get a discount? Or maybe return a book if you don't like it? Hmmm -- for this same 20-odd bucks, you could take your mate to see Dawn of the Dead. And what if you get home and regret your pick? You'll put it on the shelf unread. Maybe it's best to get nothing at all for now.

All of these responses have been studied, and many of them labeled, by a range of economists, psychologists, market researchers, and others, as Schwartz describes. In these specialists' terms, you have allowed irrelevant comparisons with other books to "frame" your impression of the books' prices. Worry that you might later experience "buyer's remorse" has prompted a "regret aversion" response: Buy something you don't like and the "sunk costs effect" will take over, leading you to store it rather than give it away. Finally, fear of regret has blocked the purchase of anything at all. So much angst -- over one relatively minor decision.

Choosing is worse torment for some than for others, says Schwartz. "Maximizers" will accept only the best, and often get stuck ruminating, while "satisficers" settle for whatever is good enough. However, says Schwartz, the proliferation of options tends to make satisficers indecisive, too, turning many into maximizers.

With its clever analysis, buttressed by sage New Yorker cartoons, The Paradox of Choice is persuasive. But the author exaggerates at times. In a chapter on rising levels of depression, he notes: "If the experience of disappointment is relentless, if virtually every choice you make fails to live up to expectations...then the trivial looms larger and larger, and the conclusion that you can't do anything right becomes devastating." That's a heavy load to place, even in part, on middle-class consumerism. What about those whose choices are limited by low income? Anyone can get depressed.

Although Schwartz believes the problem is societal, he offers a number of maxims for individuals: Accept what's good enough, limit worry over rejected options, lower your expectations, and practice an "attitude of gratitude," among other things. One might wish for more sweeping remedies, but it's better, I suppose, that we become "satisficers" than ask Big Brother to limit our choices. I, for one, am giving up buyer's remorse: Those pricey-but-too-tight shoes gathering dust in the back of my closet are headed for Goodwill.

By Hardy Green

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.