Book Review: The Paradox of Choice

Rating: 2.5 out of 3.

The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less was published by American psychologist Barry Schwartz in 2004.

In this book, Schwartz states that choice is crucial for our freedom and happiness, but at the same too much choice can also have have a negative impact in our well being.

So… what is “too much” choice? When does it start to damage our lives? And how can we mitigate it?

Everything we do in our lives is a choice. Since the moment we wake up we are making all types of choices: we choose to get dressed or stay all day in our pjs, we choose to work or not, we choose to buy an item of clothing over another, we choose to be courageous or maybe leave it for next time…

But truth is, we rarely have the luxury of choosing between only 2 options. Just think about how many combinations you can make when you order a coffee (size, type of milk, decaf, cream, temperature, foam, syrup…). Would you agree you are probably offered with a pretty high number of possibilities? Maybe more than what you actually need? Also, as time passes new choices are available that weren’t imaginable before. For example, today, we can choose our gender, something that we did not have to think about 5 years ago.

Schwartz talks about some factors that come to play when we face a choice. It starts with our personality type (are you a satisfiser or a maximiser?), the nature of the choice itself (we are more likely to change our minds if we think the choice is reversible), the cost of the opportunity, (potential) regret, gratitude, adaptation and disappointment, expectations, previous experiences and social comparisons… all have an impact in the way we make our choices (and stick to them).

What we remember is determined by how we felt the experience at the peak and when it ended. This determines if we want to experience it again.

Daniel Kahneman

So how can one be sure of what one wants with all this abundance of choice at our finger tips? How much can we rely on our previous experiences and how much can we let our expectations guide how we feel about our choices? As Schwartz very well puts it, we need to remember that live is complex and it is rare that any decision we make has the life-transforming power we sometimes expect it to have. And sometimes, it is just better to leave things to chance. Serendipity has brought wonderful things to the world!

The book finishes with several exercises you can put into practice to reduce the negative impact of this unlimited choice we face in our every day lives. I will leave you with one that I found particularly insightful for my own decision making:

  1. Review some recent decisions you have made (both small and large)
  2. Itemise the steps, time, research and anxiety that went into making those decisions
  3. Remind yourself how it felt to do the work in step 2
  4. Ask yourself how much your final decision benefited from that work

This simple exercise will help you appreciate the costs associated with the decisions you made and establish rules of thumb regarding the number of options to consider or the energy to invest in specific types of decisions. This will also help you to shorten deliberations that are unimportant to you, freeing up time to ask yourself what you really want in the areas that are truly important.

Finally, don’t forget that if none of the options available meet your needs, you can always create new and better ones!

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