Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Free choice or fishbowl?

Have you experienced this before? You go grocery shopping and don’t have much time. You need some granola, and there you are, in front of this huge shelf full of different kinds of cereals. What to choose? Do you want chocolate, fruit or nuts in your muesli? Or all of that? None? Which of it has the least calories or the healthiest ingredients? The decision seems to take forever. You leave the supermarket without having bought cereals because you could not decide. Or you leave the supermarket with a bag of muesli, but are not sure whether you really made the best choice. You experienced what scientists call the paradox of choice. We have more choices than ever in human history, but this fact does not make us happier.

In a TED Talk, Barry Schwartz from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania takes us through the various choices we have to make throughout our lives. We have to invent ourselves every day. We can decide whether we want to get married and have kids or not, and at what time we want to do so. As we are so mobile, we can work anytime or decide not to work. However, asking ourselves questions all the time consumes resources that are not available for other tasks. But still, more choice is better than less choice, isn’t it? Barry Schwartz does not agree. In his talk, he explains what might be so good about being in a fishbowl.





So there are two negative effects of choice on people: (1) It produces paralysis rather than liberation. With all the options we have, we postpone decisions over and over again because we really want to make the right decision. Finally, we end up making no decision at all. (2) We are less satisfied after making a decision if we had a lot of options than we are if we only had few options. If the option we took is not perfect, we regret it and imagine what the other option would have been like. We think about the opportunities we missed by not choosing the other options all the time. This subtracts from the satisfaction with our decision. With all the choices we have, our expectations go up. One of the options has to be perfect. And when we are not happy with the decision we made, we blame ourselves, which makes us feel even worse.

Therefore, having too many options seems to be rather a curse than a blessing. But what can we do? Professor Schwartz does not give us advice on this. But maybe a fishbowl is not the worst place to live in…

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