Friday, January 28, 2005

Paradox of Choice: A Review

Not only did I get to read Paradox of Choice, but I also got to participate in a rather lengthy discussion about it with some really smart people (including Eric Behrens, who organized it). It was kind of like being in a class where everyone really wanted to be there, had done all the reading, and were at basically the same level of aptitude. You don't get that often. I'm going to talk about both the book and the discussion here.

First, the book. I liked it generally. There was a little bit of economics (opportunity costs and such) and a little psychology (happiness scales) and a little bit of sociology (how does this issue affect broader social patterns). I like that mix of information. The Paradox of the title is simply that we think having more choices makes us happier when, in fact, for a lot of people, the more choices they have, the more unhappy they are. The rest of the book went on to prove this premise using a wide variety of actual studies.

Schwartz divides people into two basic camps--satisficers (those who make choices using a certain number of critera and when those are met, they choose) and maximizers (those who have lots of critera and who must be certain they have chosen the best possible option). In realty, he says, we are often satisficers about some things and maximizers about others. In buying a house, I became a maximizer. I had to see everything. I always was afraid to commit to something because something better just might be out there. I spent many, many weekends driving around and looking at houses and hours and hours on the internet finding more choices. To some extent, I still think about what might have been and have moments when I'm not happy with my choice.

And there's the rub. We pay a lot to make choices--in time and energy. If we don't like our choice in the end, we not only regret that we might have made the wrong choice, but we regret the time we spent making it. We feel depressed. One thing Schwartz points out is that people often have expectations that are way too high. In the case of my house, I imagined from driving around here that I'd find the perfect house, an ideal house that I'd built up in my head. No house could meet those expectations. Even if I did find the perfect house, I wouldn't be satisfied because those expectations could never be met. I'm already disappointed even before I've bought the house.

The other insight I garnered from this book was about how our choices or our reactions to our choices are affected by our obsession with status. I have always had problems with this myself. I'm always comparing myself to others, mostly in terms of financial status. I'm always thinking my car isn't nice enough, my clothes are nice enough. This was a real problem when I lived in a wealthy area of town. When I would go to the grocery store, there were bmw's, jaguars, and mercedes in the lot next to my pontiac minivan. Inside the store, women were drowning in jewlrey and furs or looking sleek in a designer business suit. I felt shabby by comparison. I knew I couldn't live like that anymore and moved myself to a more moderate part of town. Though I certainly try not to do any comparing at all, now when I do, I'm just as likely to compare favorably as not, so it all evens out. Schwartz points out that there are so many forces that make us do this comparison--advertising, the cultural push to always progress.

How do we stay happy even faced with all these choices that make us unhappy? The most important thing we can do is to be more grateful for what we have, to constantly remind ourselves that what we have is good enough. Just reading the book and being aware of things like expectations, adaptation, regret, and opportunity costs helped me to put some things in perspective.

The discussion was great. We're reading this in the context not just of how we might use the ideas in it for ourselves, but also apply them to our organizations. The biggest issue that arose in terms of this was our culture of consensus. All of our schools are founded on Quaker principles. The principle of consensus functions in all of meetings and decisions. All of us find this frustrating at times and just want someone to decide something already! We talked about setting criteria ahead of time and limiting the number of criteria, of perhaps designating someone to be the ultimate decision-maker as ways to resolve our frustration.

We also talked about recognizing when you're dealing with a maximizer and how to alleviate any disappointment they might have as a result of something you decide for them. The group had a lot of librarians and they talked about limiting the search choices when working with students on doing research. Those of us in IT talked about people's high expectations about the end results of projects or people's indecision to choose colors for a web project which might be helped by limiting their choices to just three schemes. Or we discussed filtering choices for people. Having a small group narrow the field from 50 to 3 and presenting that to a larger group.

There were so many really good things that were said that I can hardly bring them all up here. It really was wonderful to be talking about this with so many interesting people.