Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice

Psychologist Barry Schwartz talks with Lars Mensel about the downside of choice, and the silver lining to the economic downturn.

On choice and aspiration

When choice was limited, I think people’s aspirations and expectations were limited. And so you could live a decent life and feel good about it. But living a decent life just isn’t good enough anymore. Why would you settle for decent when anything is possible? It seems possible that the economic calamity of the last few years might reverse this to some degree and move people back to more reasonable expectations about what life can be like. I think that the economic downturn would really have to last a substantial period of time before it changed the way people think about themselves and about their lives. I certainly don’t wish on us another decade of economic turmoil and suffering. But the potential benefits if that were to occur include lowering expectations, which I don’t think is a bad thing.

On decision fatigue

I think there’s good reason to think that if you go shopping back to school at the mall with your kids, and you are making one set of choices after another, by the end of the day, you are doing some really stupid things, just to get it over with and get out of there. …

Another point that Baumeister makes that is not apparent in the article in the Times, is that if self-control is a muscle that gets fatigued with use, in theory it can also get strengthened with exercise. If that’s true, you may see lots of individual differences.

On cultural differences on what counts as a decision

There’s some very interesting research done by a psychologist named Hazel Marcus on cultural differences on what counts as a decision. She brings people into the lab to do some study, but in the course of doing the study, they get to choose which cubicle to sit in, which writing implement to use, and a whole bunch of other trivial things like that. And when they are all done, they get asked: “how many decisions did you make?” And what she finds is that Caucasian Americans think they have made many more decisions than people from India or Japan. The way we organize our experience is itself heavily influenced by the culture we come from, and if you come from a culture that does not celebrate choice, all of these choices aren’t interpreted by you as choices.

On the dirty secret of economics

They build models as if people are rational actors, knowing that that assumption is unjustified. And what they hope, I think, and what Keynes thought was also a mistake, is that our irrational quirks are idiosyncratic, so that they basically just cancel each other out.

Is nudging people paternalistic?

People think it’s manipulative, and paternalistic, but any system is manipulative and paternalistic, so why not manipulate in a way that actually promotes well-being instead of impairing it.

Read the entire interview.

Barry Schwartz is the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and more recently, Practical Wisdom.