Choice, like freedom, can be a burden. But in an election year, it seems appropriate that the act of choosing should be a major theme in several of the top 10 business books of 2004 as selected by BusinessWeek reviewers. For example, James Surowiecki argues that decisions made by a group are often better than those made by the smartest man or woman alone. In the provocative The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (Doubleday), the New Yorker staff writer provides numerous example to support this thesis, and cites the backing of social scientists who salute "decentralized self-organizing systems," such as Adam Smith's invisible hand. Moreover, he tells when tapping into the crowd pays off big and why the group can go wrong, as when stock-market speculation spirals out of control. Although the author isn't always convincing, reviewer Christopher Farrell found that "he musters ample proof that the payoff from heeding collective intelligence is greater than many of us imagine."
What if the cornucopia of choices facing all of us becomes overwhelming? Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Ecco) describes how Americans are increasingly flummoxed by the necessity of selecting from a vast and growing number of alternatives in almost every sphere of life, from consumer goods to 401(k) investments to religion. The professor of social theory at Swarthmore College provides a survey of social scientists' research into how people make these judgments: We learn why the most diligent pre-choice research tends to get trumped by anecdotal evidence, such as a friend's recommendation, and why consumers sometimes cannot decide and leave the store empty-handed. Schwartz exaggerates a bit, as when he links rising societal levels of depression to the "relentless" experience of disappointment over decisions made. On the whole, however, his book is absorbing, witty, and persuasive.