Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Less Is More -- by Barry Schwartz

The following edited excerpt comes from a presentation given at Pop!Tech 2004 in Camden, Maine.  The speaker was psychology professor Barry Schwartz of Swathmore.  

I've always been thoroughly fascinated by psychological explanations of human behavior, dating back to my days as a Ph.D. graduate student studying cognitive psychology.

You can listen to this speech yourself by visiting IT Conversations, a fabulous free resource providing superb IT-related lectures delivered as podcasts.
Since birth, modern women have been told that they can do and be anything they want.  Be an astronaut, the head of an Internet company, or a stay-at-home mom.  There aren't any rules anymore and the choices are endless.

Is it possible that we've become so spoiled by choices that we're unable to make one?  

A part of us knows that once you choose something -- another option goes away.

The desire to have it all, and the illusion that we can, is one of the principle sources of torture of modern, affluent, free, and autonomous western societies.

We have much more freedom and flexibility about where we work and when we work than we ever did before.  There's obviously something very good about that.  But what that means is that at every minute of everyday we are faced with a choice of whether or not to be working.  Where you are is no longer an excuse for not working.  The time of day is no longer an excuse for not working.  That you are already doing something else at the same time is no longer an excuse for not working.  

We are now in charge of what we look like in a way that we weren't before.  You used to be in charge of your physical appearance, like the clothes you wore, or your haircut.  But, now you get to shape your body as well.  If you have too much tissue in one place you just suck it out and you reinject it someplace else where you don't have quite enough.  You can paralyze your facial muscles to make the little lines go away.  Anything is possible and what this means is that physical appearance is now a matter of personal choice and personal responsibility.  And what that means is that if you're unattractive it is your fault.  Unattractiveness is a matter of choice.  It didn't use to be.  

People could always choose whether to marry.  Having decided to marry, they could always choose to end the marriage.  And they could always choose whether and when to have children.  In the old days, although these choices were available, the default assumption was so powerful that most people didn't feel like there was any choice.  There was a choice of mates.  But after that everything else just ran its course.  You got married as soon as you could.  You started having kids as soon as you could.  It's obvious that none of that is true anymore in our society.  Should I marry or shouldn't I?  Should I marry now or should I marry later?  Should I have children or shouldn't I?  Should I have them now or should I have them later  Each and every one of these decisions is a very consequential decision and a very real one in the minds of today's young people.  

Religion comes in a lot more flavors than it used to.  Even identity -- who we are -- is up for grabs.  We don't automatically inherit the identities our parents gave us.  We are free to re-identify and reshape ourselves on almost a daily basis.  

These are consequential decisions because they tell the world something about who we are.  No matter how trivial the decision may seem, it says something to the world about you, or at least some people think it does, and that makes unimportant decisions become important decisions.   This creates the paradox.  

We have more freedom in America, more freedom of choice than any people ever has had anywhere on earth before.  We also have more money than any people anywhere on earth ever has had before which is not insignificant because freedom without the money with which to exercise choice is a kind of empty freedom.  So this is, as you might imagine, the best of all possible worlds.

Well, no.  Americans are sadder than Americans have ever been before.  Clinical depression is more than twice as frequent now as it was a generation ago.  Some people have estimated that it is a hundred times more frequent than it was a century ago.  This is also true of suicide.  Not only is the frequency of these things higher than ever before, but it is also being observed in younger and younger people than ever before.  

The problem of making choices makes a direct contribution to the fact that in the face of plenty, Americans are more and more dissatisfied with their lives.  

What Does Too Much Choice Do?
The classic study involved buying jam at a gourmet food store in Palo Alto.  This store would set up a little table where people could sample products and then if they wanted to buy the products, they could.  Experimenters set up a table that offered imported jams.  One week there were 24 different flavors of these jams sitting on the table.   If you stopped by you could sample as many as you wanted and then you'd get a coupon that would give you a dollar off on any jam you bought.  The next week the same set up, except instead of 24 jams, you had only six.  Again, you could stop by, sample, and if you liked the product you could buy the jam and get a dollar off using the coupon.  What they found is that when there were 24 jams on the display more people were attracted than when there were six.  More tasting, more coupons dispersed, and one tenth as many people bought jam.  A profusion of choices produces a kind of paralysis.  Which jam should I buy?  How am I going to decide?  

Too much choice makes it impossible for people to choose.  With all of this choice they may do better when they finally pull the trigger and make a decision, but they will feel worse.  In other words, you do better objectively yet you feel worse about the results of your decision.  The question is why.

One reason why is regret.  You choose the boysenberry jam.  You take it home.  It's good, but maybe the blueberry would have been better.  And you regret not having chosen the blueberry.  What that does is subtract from the satisfaction you get from the boysenberry even though boysenberry's a perfectly good choice.  So, regret poisons good results, and even worse than that, anticipated regret -- the worry that you will end up sorry that you didn't choose the blueberry -- makes choosing itself almost impossible.  

There's a concept economists call opportunity costs.  Anytime you make a choice of one thing you are passing up attractive features of other things.  These missed opportunities are called lost opportunities, and the more attractive alternatives there are, the more opportunity costs there will be.  These will accumulate and detract from the satisfaction you get out of what might be a perfectly good decision.  

Choice causes an escalation in expectations.  A profusion in choices leads to a decrease in satisfaction with decisions.  Often, satisfaction is determined not by the objective results of the decision but by how the results of our decision line up with what our expectations are.  If expectations keep on leaping ahead of objective results, then at best, we're running in place, and often times we're falling behind.  

Not to romanticize about the past, but the sense that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse people's expectations were much more moderate than our expectations are now.  So, it was actually possible to have experiences that exceeded expectations.  It is no longer possible for people living in our society to have experiences that exceed expectations because expectations are so high.    

Finally, you go out to buy something.  You make a choice.  You bring it back.  It's disappointing.  It doesn't live up to your expectations and you have to ask this question.  Whose fault is it that this choice failed to live up to expectations?  The feeling today is the fault is yours.  There is no excuse for failure in a world where the choices are essentially infinite.  There is no excuse for anything less than perfection.  

The paradox in all of this is that what really, really produces flourishing -- what really makes people happy -- what really produces satisfaction -- is close relations to other people.  That's the single most important determinant of well-being that anyone has identified in 40 years of research.  

The thing to notice about close relations with other people is that they constrain.  They don't liberate.  What it means to be close to someone is that you are not free to make all of these choices for yourself.  You have to consider the needs, interests, and desires of others.  So, your choice set is limited by the fact that you care about other people and other people care about you.  

In an affluent society like this one, anything that constrains choices is itself a benefit.  One of the benefits of being involved with other people in an intimate way is that it limits your possibilities.  We are now desperate for things in society that will limit our possibilities.  

How Can Choice Be Both Good and Bad?
Economists have a term called diminishing marginal utility.  Imagine a curve where the x-axis is the number of choices you have, and the y-axis is your subjective state (how good you feel).  Living with no choice is infinitely bad.  You can't be a human being if you live in a world with no opportunity to determine your destiny.  As the number of choices in life increases, our well-being also increases.  But, eventually, the marginal benefits of additional choices become infinitely small.  They go almost to zero.  Adding more and more options doesn't increase our well-being.  

At the same time, for each additional choice we face, there's a negative attached to it -- uncertainty -- regret -- raised expectations.  The more choices you have, the bigger the negative effect.  Going from no choice to some choice dramatically improves our well-being.  But a point is reached where well-being actually crosses the zero point and starts to go negative as a function of increased choice.  

So, you can be anything you want to be.  No limits.  The only problem is that being anything you want to be is only possible within a world in which there are limits.  If you take away all the limits it becomes impossible to realize potential.  

It is only within a set of constraints that the realization of human potential is possible.  And we have, as a society, moved in the direction of assuming all constraints are bad and our task in life is to shatter as many constraints as possible.  The result has been to make us more and more dissatisfied with life even as the material circumstances of life get better and better.  

There's an optimal amount of choice.  Some amount of choice is better than no choice unequivocally.  But, we have assumed that since some choice is good, more choice is better.  We've assumed that the relation between choice and well-being is monotonic.  The curve goes in one direction.  That's false.  


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