TOPICS > Economy

Paradox of Choice

December 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
Paul Solman looks at a phenomenon called "The Paradox of Choice," a problem even more common during the holiday shopping season.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s that time of year again at King of Prussia, Pa., where the king himself would be overwhelmed by the holiday shopping options. Three hundred sixty-five different stores make this a “crowning” achievement, the largest mall in the world.

We toured it with psychology professor Barry Schwartz, a shopping skeptic. He began to think that all of us are overwhelmed by the choices of modern life when he tried to buy pants a few years ago.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: So I said I want a pair of jeans, size 32-28 and the salesperson said, “well, do you want slim fit, relaxed fit, easy fit? Do you want wide boot cut, wide leg, peg leg? Do you want acid washed, stone washed, regular?” You know, I realized that I was spending an hour trying to do something that used to take me five minutes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Out of his and others’ experiences of “overwhelment” emerged Schwartz’s forthcoming book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.” More cell phones, for instance.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: That’s a phone that actually has Internet access. It has a video, records at 20 seconds. It also takes pictures.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you can get 20 seconds of video on this phone?


PAUL SOLMAN: Some three dozen different phones on sale here, with some 30 faces per phone.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: So you take all these phones and multiply them by all the plans.

PAUL SOLMAN: And then … how many plans you got roughly speaking?

SALESMAN: About 20.

PAUL SOLMAN: Twenty different plans.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: Twenty different plans.

PAUL SOLMAN: So that would be 20,000 different options.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: And surely there is one plan that’s just the right one for your usage. And one phone that’s just the right phone. By the time you’ve figured it out, all the phones will be obsolete, and there will be a new set to choose from. And this is … this is characteristic I think of every technological object you can think of now. I went to a, to a stereo store, and I just counted how many speakers are there and how many tuners, how many amplifiers, and it turned out that in that store you could put together 6.5 million different stereo systems.

PAUL SOLMAN: 6.5 million?

BARRY SCHWARTZ: Million. Million.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, this could have been a maturity crisis: Too much new tech for old consumers like Schwartz and his Boswell here.

PAUL SOLMAN: How many digital cameras do have you for sale here?


PAUL SOLMAN: But research shows that “choice shock” is a function of temperament, not age. The key seems to be: Are you a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?

BARRY SCHWARTZ: The satisficer is somebody who is satisfied — that’s where the word comes from — with good enough. So you have standards. They may be very high standards, but as soon as you encounter something that meets those standards, you stop the search and you choose it, and you’re happy, satisfied with the results of the choice.

A maximizer, in contrast, is someone for whom the goal is to get not good enough, but best. And if you’re that kind of person, the only way to know you’ve got the best is by doing an exhaustive search.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the exhaustive maximizer, says Schwartz, eventually becomes exhausted. Satisficer Schwartz has a quiz to determine what you are.

The short form is this one question. True or false?: “I never settle for second best.”

If true, you’re a maximizer, and probably overwhelmed, like Katherine Koromvokis here, our producer’s sister, a devout maximizer — looking, as always, for the best stuff at the best price, with zeal and guilt.

KATHERINE KOROMVOKIS: I wish I could change. But, you know, there’s a lot of choice out there, and it’s overwhelming. It’s too many coupons, it’s too many deals. It’s way too many stores.

PAUL SOLMAN: Too many coupons, but you’ve got them … you’ve got them alphabetically arrayed in…


PAUL SOLMAN: It’s more than I’ve carried ever in my own wallet.

KATHERINE KOROMVOKIS: Yes, I know, I know. But I just can’t pass up a deal. So that’s what I do.

PAUL SOLMAN: We also couldn’t resist interviewing this guy, who turned out to be filmmaker Rick Morris, a recovering maximizer. So why are you getting a massage?

RICK MORRIS: Just the stress of Christmas shopping.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is the profusion of choice the other great problem?

RICK MORRIS: That is a problem. That you can just … even looking right here at the vital touch place, you can see they’ve got the hand massager, they’ve got the massage roller. There’s so many more choices. Last year they didn’t have a product line like this.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, choices abounded even at this would-be refuge from shopping, the King of Prussia’s Santa station.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do the kids get unsettled by the number of choices that they experience and see in front of them?

SANTA CLAUS: Some of them know exactly what they want, and some of them, they get to thinking and they want to say something and then they’re thinking of something else. And it just keeps building and building. And then they can’t say anything.

PAUL SOLMAN: What do you say to them?

SANTA CLAUS: Then I ask them, “How about if Santa brings a surprise?” And they say, “Yes, yes.”

PAUL SOLMAN: So they want Santa to choose?

SANTA CLAUS: Many times. Yes, they do.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thanks very much.

SANTA CLAUS: Thank you. Merry Christmas.

PAUL SOLMAN: Merry Christmas. So even pre-maximizers can be daunted by the profusion of choice in America these days. Barry Schwartz says psychology suggests several reasons why. One is regret, well-known to make folks miserable. Since all choices involve not choosing something else, the more choices you have, the more there is to regret not having chosen.

Then there are expectations: The more choices out there, the greater your expectations, the harder to realize them. Add self-blame: The more choices, the more it’s your fault for not making the right one. And finally, says Schwartz, there’s stubborn old biology.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: For virtually the entire history of the species, the decisions people had to make were “yes” or “no.” Shall I approach this, or is it dangerous and should I run away from it. And so it’s easy to imagine having an exquisitely fine-tuned mechanism to answer that question. But now, instead of that question, we have to answer a different one.

PAUL SOLMAN: Namely, which of the gazillion choices out there should we make? That, says Schwartz, is bound to nettle our neurons. Now, politically Barry Schwartz is a liberal who finds himself running against what seems to be the tide these days, more choice for every citizen: The private Social Security accounts that President George W. Bush has pushed, for example, where we would decide how to invest our own money.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I trust Americans to make their own decisions and manage their own money.

SAMUEL LEWIS: The president trusts us; Schwartz doesn’t.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: People don’t have the resources, the intellectual resources, the time to learn enough in all of these different areas of life to make wise decisions. The point of public policy, seems to me, is to improve welfare.

But who decides what’s in someone’s best interest? And the answer that we have collectively embraced, driven, I think, largely by economists is maximizing choice is the way to promote public welfare.

PAUL SOLMAN: Choices about retirement, choices about health care. These days, patients are becoming consumers with the “right to choose” their treatment. Even prescription drug ads are targeted at the public, presumably so we can convince our doctors to prescribe.

AD SPOKESMAN: Ask your doctor…

PAUL SOLMAN: But is this what we really want?

BARRY SCHWARTZ: There’s an extraordinary survey that was done where people were asked: If you were to get cancer, would you want to be in charge of your treatment? And almost 70 percent of people said yes, with the exception of one subgroup: People who actually had cancer, and of those people, 12 percent wanted to be in charge of their treatment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Again, here’s the president, earlier this month, signing the Medicare reform bill into law.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We show our respect for seniors by giving them more choices and more control over their decision-making.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s because, says the president’s chief economic advisor, Greg Mankiw, government is worse at making choices than individuals.

GREGORY MANKIW: Ultimately, someone’s making the choice. And the question is: Do you want to make the choice for yourself, or do you want the government to make the choice for you? Free-market economies are predicated on the premise, which I think history holds out, that when people make decisions for themselves, they make better decisions than when governments make decisions for them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Our last stop then, just down the road from the King of Prussia mall, was a true government landmark: Valley Forge, crucible of the American revolution, the war that introduced the world to the very idea of political choice. So American soldiers fought a revolution staying in huts like this in the freezing winter in Valley Forge so that we could have choice — unlike, say, the Soviet Union, even in the 20th century. Are you suggesting that we’d be better off going back to something like this?

BARRY SCHWARTZ: No, no, no. Of course I’m not suggesting that. I think that life wouldn’t be worth living and people couldn’t be fully human if they didn’t have significant choice about many, many aspects of their, of their lives. And it’s sort of a miracle that we live in a society where that kind of choice is possible.

But what I am suggesting is that just because some choice is good, essential for well being, it doesn’t follow that more choice is better. And we have, I think, long since passed the point where additional choice, rather than liberating us, which is the point, paralyzes us, tyrannizes us.

PAUL SOLMAN: So what then do we do with that?

BARRY SCHWARTZ: I think there are several steps that we can take as individuals.

PAUL SOLMAN: Schwartz’s first step is that, if you’re a maximizer, give it up. Satisficers have lower expectations, fewer regrets, happier lives. Step two…

BARRY SCHWARTZ: We can make choices about when to make choices, decide that there are certain areas of life where we’re not going to care and other areas where we’re really going to devote all of this time and attention to making sure that we do the right thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: A third step: Be grateful for what you do have, even writing down each night three things you’re grateful for, Schwartz suggests, no matter how hokey it might seem. Now, as we tried to follow Schwartz’s advice by, for instance, limiting our graphic choices here to what you might call “Valley Forge simple,” we kept having one nagging doubt.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it just sounds like, “Oh, you just got to decide to be a better person in a sense.” I mean, how do you do that?

BARRY SCHWARTZ: Well, I don’t think any of the things I’ve just said is easy to do. There’s a deep cultural assumption that choice is, in and of itself, good. And I don’t think people don’t realize that choice can be a problem rather than a solution to a problem.

PAUL SOLMAN: The problem of choice in an era far removed from Valley Forge, when the cost of choosing, according to Barry Schwartz, has often become greater than the benefit of making the choice.