Books that changed my life (1): The Paradox of Choice

Much as I have always been an avid reader, most books pretty much wash over me.  Maybe I have an emotional reaction in the moment – I cried buckets over The Book Thief the other night – but not much tends to stay with me long-term.

So the few books that have had a genuine impact really stand out.  I suspect the books that have actually changed me can be counted on one hand.   The first one that comes to mind is a book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwarz.

When I was preparing for my wedding, my sister had a mantra for me, which was ‘good enough’.  She knew that I tend to over-plan and over-think quite a few areas of my life, so she wanted to remind me that good enough is good enough.  Did the first thing you chose meet your criteria?  Then go ahead and buy it/order it/book it.  We put this into practice when she took me to a dress shop “to see what sort of style would work” and I chose the second dress I tried on (I would have bought it that day if the beading hadn’t been falling off the one they had).

Some weeks after that, she sent me an article by Barry Schwarz that laid out the main points that he covers in The Paradox of Choice.  When making choices, people fall in to two categories, ‘maximisers’ and ‘satisficers’.  Satisficers do just what my sister was doing above – think of what they need, look till they find it, job done.   Found the dress in the first shop?  Great, stop looking.

Maximisers, on the other hand, need to know about everything that’s out there.  What if there was a better dress in the next shop?  And the next?  What if the shop two towns away was cheaper?  Maybe you went for a non-white dress, but it might be wise to check white dresses, just in case?

Yeah, to me now, it’s pretty tiring even to write down that process.   Part of the problem with the maximiser strategy is that in a world of thousands of dress shops, each with dozens of dress styles, it’s just not possible to find or try all options.  So maximisers are endlessly unsatisfied.

I certainly used to fill my choosing process on anything  with loads of shoulds and oughts.  I should just check that there isn’t one better.  I ought to see whether I could get something cheaper.  This can lead to paralysis even in the supermarket.  How do I choose between these 50 types of jam?  This one is cheaper, but the other has more fruit content, I think I like raspberry better, but blackcurrent would please my flatmate.

Barry Schwarz ties in these common everyday dilemmas with studies in psychology and economics which explain more about the impact of choice.  It turns out that the jam situation has its own experiment.  A stall was set up in a posh food shop, offering samples to taste of either 6 jams, or 24 jams (all 24 jams were available for purchase in each case). More jams attracted more people to the table, but far more people actually bought jam when there were 6 jams on the table (30% versus 3%) .  The idea here is that 6 jams is a manageable amount to choose between.  With 24 jams, most people just choose not to choose.

The impact of choice goes far beyond the moment of choosing.  Studies show that satisficers are happier than maximisers, that people prefer non-reversible choices to reversible ones (that was counter-intuitive to me) and that if you ask people to explain their decisions, they may make ones that they are less happy with that if they just made the decision with their gut.

A lot of the content of the book does cross over with various popular literature about happiness (a key point is really that satisficers are happier than maximisers).  But what is really different about this book is that it offered concrete methods to cope with a world where we could easily be overwhelmed by choice every day.

The main one is: choose when to choose.  There will always be some things that we’re just really damn picky about.  (Yes, you should have seen me at the picture framer’s.  Maximisation in action.)  But for the things we don’t, we can come up with a rule for choosing.  Always choose the same brand.  Always choose the cheapest.  The book made me realise that this isn’t necessarily being a bad decision-maker, or even a bad consumer.  There’s a trade-off between getting the ‘best’ result and the time and mental energy to make it.  And it’s not clear that the maximiser route even gets you the best result, especially if by ‘best’ you mean ‘the one that makes you happiest’.

In addition, we often worry about opportunity cost.  Very rarely does something we buy meet all our needs.  I am particularly good at coming up with counterfactuals: I want the jumper from Next but with the neckline of the one I saw in M&S and the beading on the one from Monsoon: why doesn’t it exist?  Then I go back and buy the one from Next and spend the next 6 months pissed off at its shortcomings.  This also ties into some of Schwarz’s other recommendations for setting sensible expectations and limiting regret.

I am massively resistant to self-help and self-improvement books, which I guess this is in some ways: it certainly helped me.  What I like is that it just lays things out quite simply: this is what the studies say.  This is how you can use that knowledge to make your life better.  And it has made my life better.  Unless I’m particularly tired and hungry (in which conditions I always turn into a toddler) I am far less likely to get paralysed in front of a shop display.  I’ll think of a present for someone, buy it, and call it done, rather than endlessly second-guessing myself.

There is so much more in this book that I haven’t even touched on.  I can only say to anyone with ingrained maximising tendencies: go and read it.  It might change your life too.

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One Response to Books that changed my life (1): The Paradox of Choice

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Choice | altdotlife: Build your own village

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