ideas from books: The Paradox of Choice

paradox_of_choice_coverJust before the Iphone 4 came out I was really happy with my iPhone 3GS. Except that it was not the current model anymore and the iPhone 4 had bigger and better features than the previous model. “To buy or not to buy, that was the question!”

This apparently trivial episode is an example of the ailment–so typical of contemporary opulent societies– that Barry Schwartz so brilliantly defines and illustrates in his wonderful book “the Paradox of Choice”. To put it plainly, it is embarrassing to say that one of the problems that we face in the industrialized world today is the plethora of choices that very rapidly can start governing our lives and end up taking a life of their own. I will never forget a scene from the movie “The Devil’s Advocate” where the character played by Charlize Theron, a country girl rapidly confronted with the “hardship” of money in her new city life, finds herself spending her days trying to figure out what color or what style of wallpaper (or was it curtains?) would best suit the new apartment she is living in. The human beings/characters that Schwartz portrays in his book are very similar: they are the Economics 101 textbook “maximizers” whose mission in life – it seems -is to get the greatest possible satisfaction from every penny they earn.

Luckily we are not all like these maximizer caricatures–at least not all the time. However, the amazing array of choices that modern society presents us with seems to want to push us very close to that model. Who can honestly say to have never spent an embarrassing amount of time picking a toothpaste from a seemingly infinite range? Should picking a toothpaste ever be more than a one minute affair? What about buying a stereo? There are people who invest weeks into choosing the “perfect” stereo, but the time they actually devote to listening to music through it is minimal. It seems as though choosing becomes an end in itself and not just the means towards satisfaction and happiness. Life is spent choosing, not living. There is no proportionality between the time and energy spent choosing and the goal we intend to pursue through that choice.

But even when choosing is not an end in itself and is exercised “rationally”, Schwartz suggests that it is almost impossible to make a “perfect” choice. By definition, we choose based on the future satisfaction that we think will derive from that choice, but there is no way of really knowing what that satisfaction will be… we take our best guess! Moreover, when choosing we are weighing many factors and variables, and it is doubtful whether we are able to assess the relative importance of each of these variables.

Of course Schwartz’s book does not contend that the abundance of choices is inherently bad and that we should not devote time to making the right choices. What it does do however is make us reflect on a) the inherent cost of choosing b) the difficulty of predicting the outcome of our choices in terms of the happiness that will ensue c) the importance of devoting our “choosing time and energy” to the matters that are truly important. This means striving to become a “satisficer” i.e. choosing products and solutions that are “good enough” even if not perfect. By doing so, we will have time and energy left over to look for the “perfect” alternative for the few things in life when such an investment is worthwhile.

In Italian we have a wonderful proverb that says “il meglio è nemico del bene” – i.e. “searching for something “better” is often the best way to lose track of what is “good” “. In a world full of choices, it takes a lot of character and discipline to focus on the very few ones that are truly important and to settle for “good enough” for the rest of the choices.

Yes, the Iphone 3GS is undoubtably “good enough” (but I still bought the Iphone 4 :-).

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