Barry Schwartz: Analysis paralysis and the ‘paradox of choice’ justify wealth redistribution

I’ve heard it said before that too much choice can be harmful for people. I’m thinking primarily of Sheena Iyengar’s TEDTalk of July, 2010, The Art of Choosing, in which she said at about 10:38:

But for Eastern Europeans [who were acclimating to freer markets after the fall of communism], the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge. They were flooded with choice before they could protest that they didn’t know how to swim. When asked, “What words and images do you associate with choice?” Gregors from Warsaw said, “Ah. For me it is fear. There are some dilemmas, you see. I am used to no choice.” Bodin, from Kiev, said in response to how he felt about the new consumer marketplace, “It is too much. We do not need everything that is there.” …

When someone can’t see how one choice is unlike another, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating. Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints. It’s not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutia. In other words, choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents in America, when it is thrust up on those who are insufficiently prepared for it.

Her point is well taken that a sudden overabundance of choice can be confusing and frustrating to those whose decision-making faculties have been stunted by years of repression, but her attitude is convoluted. Choice is not the villain here. Choice was not “thrust upon those who were insufficiently prepared for it”. Rather, a cadre of communist despots thrust the absence of choice on those people by force, thereby causing their impreparation for what, in freer countries, is simply the state of nature. 

Just the other day, TED published to its facebook page a playlist, entitled Our Brains: Predictably Irrational, which unearthed a July 2005 talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz, entitled The Paradox of Choice. Here it is:

This talk is new to me, but the argument is familiar: More choice on the market is a detriment to the general welfare. I found Barry’s talk to be more provocative than Sheena’s for two reasons. First, unlike Sheena, Barry did not endeavor to make distinctions across cultures. Barry apparently considers everyone generally to be victims of the over-abundance of choice. Second, Barry, in what was perhaps a momentary indiscretion, suggested a potential policy solution: wealth redistribution. Game on!

Okay, so Barry offers several examples of overabundance of choice, from salad dressings to cell phones, to awkwards doctor visits, to jeans. The argument is pretty straightforward and runs as above: Too much choice creates indecision, analysis paralysis, frustration, anxiety, dissatisfaction, etc., and people are not the better for it. During the course of his talk, Barry says a thing that acts sort of like the libertarian equivalent of a dog whistle. We perk right up and sit alert. Here it is, at 16:54:

There is no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is, but I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare. Now, … as a policy matter, the thing to think about is this: What enables all this choice in industrial societies is material affluence. There are lots of places in the world, and we have heard about several of them, where their problem is not that they have too much choice. Their problem is that they have too little. So the stuff I’m talking about is the peculiar problem of modern affluent western societies, and what is so frustrating and infuriating is this: Steve Levitt talked to you yesterday about how expensive and difficult-to-install child seats don’t help. It’s a waste of money. What I’m telling you is that these expensive, complicated choices, it’s not simply that they don’t help. They actually hurt. they actually make us worse off. If some of what enables people in our societies to make all of the choices we make were shifted to societies in which people have too few options, not only would those people’s lives be improved, but ours would be improved also. It’s what economists call a Pareto-improving move. Income redistribution will make everyone better off, not just poor people, because of how all this excess choice plagues us.

So there you have it. Barry Schwartz does not know the magical amount of how much wealth should be stolen from us and given to others, but the only suggestion he offers for improving our own welfare is to have some socio-economic authority steal some amount of stuff from us and redistribute to others. Violence is the first resort. Well, I’m a libertarian, so that doesn’t really work for me.

Even if Barry Schwartz did claim to know the magical amount of choice that would optimize prosperity, convincing me of that would be a tall order. The free market is an evolutionary process. Where decades of market activity have determined the a mount of choice available to a populace, I can’t imagine a psychologist and his calculator punching up a more optimal amount. It would be analogous to comparing the glory of the human body to the best robot that engineers can build. I know it’s possible to imagine a better human body than the one that has evolved over millennia, but even the greatest engineers have yet to improve upon it. Schwartz’s redistribution scheme would almost certainly result in a boondoggle, even if he claimed to know the right amount to steal and redistribute.

Could there possibly be any non-compulsory ways to solve the problems of dissatisfaction that Barry Schwartz mentioned? I can imagine two possible ways. First, in response to Schwartz’s example regarding retirement plans, wherein customers bought into more plans as they were offered fewer choices, the author of the Property, Freedom and the State blog,  Pave Rantanen, has a good point:

Schwartz’s argument reminds me of this xkcd strip. Let’s see…

xkcd: The Economic Argument

Crazy phenomenon: More choice leads to paralysis(i.e. limiting choice removes the paralysis and makes people more likely to choose/buy stuff).
If it worked, companies would be using to make a killing in: selling anything that currently comes in “too many” varieties.
Are they? No, if the amount of salad dressings in a normal supermarket is an indication of anything.

So try as Barry might to convince private markets that people want fewer choices. I capitalism is at ruthlessly profit-focused as I then either business should pick up on Schwartz’s idea, or it isn’t quite correct. In his 2010 appearance on the Colbert Report, Schwartz said:

It turns out that a major national home builder, where you buy a house from a development and you go someplace and outfit it with this tile and that carpet and those faucet fixtures and so-on, the average home buyer spent twenty hours outfitting the house. And they decided for reasons that had nothing to do with my book that they were offering people too many options. They tried to save money by reducing the number of options they offered, and what happened was the number of options people bought went up. With fewer faucets to choose from, people upgraded more. instead of taking twenty hours to fix up their house, they took four. they were much more satisfied with the house that they bought. so this was a source of employment for this home developer, because they were doing so much better selling homes to satisfied customers.

This sort of persuasion is much more appealing to me as a solution than forceful wealth redistribution. If reducing the amount of choice on the market works, then companies will soon be making a killing by doing it, if they aren’t already.

Another non-compulsory way to handle the problem is to build a culture in which people more properly develop their decision-making skills. Both Sheena and Barry’s talks seem fatuous to me because I don’t really see in my own life the crisis that these speakers claim have pervaded western culture. Perhaps I’ve somehow mastered the art of decision-making. Perhaps that is a rare skill, so i’ll explain how I handle some of these situations.

  1. My number one rule is that time and trouble is a high opportunity cost. Given the choice between the most perfect salad dressing and five minutes of my valuable time, I’d rather have five minutes of my time.  A merely good salad dressing will do if it gives me my time back. I have a sense of when I’ve paced up and down the salad dressing aisle long enough. I know when the marginal benefit of choosing the perfect salad dressing over a merely good salad dressing has been eclipsed by the cost of time wasted in the store. After I waste enough time in the store, the choice is no longer a matter of maximizing benefits; it is a matter of cutting costs. I grab and go, and I leave happy in the knowledge that I made the best choice of all: I’ve chosen to take my time back. This strategy has worked for me in the past with larger life decisions, such as choices of college and student loans.
  2. Know thyself. When I go into a supermarket, I generally know what I want. I have an understanding of the sort of things that interest me. I look for those things. I gravitate toward them when I spot them. I eliminate from consideration those items that do not meet my criteria. In keeping with the salad dressing example, I know that I do not like white or orange goop on my salads. I know that I prefer vinaigrette-style concoctions and  If I see white or orange goop, I keep walking. That cuts my decision-making burden substantially.Barry Schwartz had the following exchange during his interview with Stephen Colbert.

    Barry: I went to The Gap, which is where I used to buy my jeans, and I said, “I’d like a pair of jeans,” and I told them my size. It used to take 30 seconds, but instead the clerk said, “Do you want slim fit? Easy fit? Relaxed fit? Zipper fly? Button fly? Boot cut? Acid washed? Stone washed?” and I said, “Wait. I want the kind that used to be the only kind.”
    Stephen: You wanted Wranglers.
    Barry: I think so. I wanted Gap Wranglers. You’re probably right.
    Stephen: Exactly. You knew when to get rid of those: When they stopped hurting.
    Barry: Well, my wife tells me when to get rid of the ones I wear, which is when you can start to see through them.
    Stephen: So you panicked? Did you go through an agonizing reappraisal?
    Barry: No, no, no, no, no. Here’s what happened. I tried them all on, and I walked out with the best fitting jeans I had ever had. No, no, no. This was years ago—
    Stephen: What? What? What was it? Relaxed fit? Slim fit?
    Barry: God. Who remembers?
    Stephen: Who—? You’ve got to remember! Then you go in the next time and say, “Give—.”
    Barry: It was relaxed fit. Relaxed fit. It was the best fitting jeans I ever had, and, Stephen, I felt worse. I did better and I felt worse. … I was disappointed, even though I did well, because what I expected was that even though there are dozens, hundreds, of different options, one of them should be perfect, and what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect, and the result is that I felt like I had failed.

    Barry Schwartz, who in 2005 suggested wealth redistribution as a remedy for choice overload, is tells us in 2010, basically, that he was not immediately sure what type of jeans the fit him better than any other pair of jeans he had ever bought. Barry, you’ve got to remember! Know thyself. Take note of what you like. Skip the other stuff. Decision-making gets much easier.

  3. Limit your own choices. To deliver to market the bounty of choices that we’ve come to expect at a supermarket is nothing short of a miracle, requiring the coordination of thousands of people working across the globe. Compared to providing all these choices, limiting one’s own choices is profoundly simple. If your employer offers a choice of some fifty-five retirement plans, and you have the time and energy to go through only five, the answer is not to petition the government to forcefully redistribute wealth. The answer is to take the first fifty choices and chuck them in he garbage. Limit your own choices. I dare you.
    Frustrated with choice? Let them decide for you.

    Frustrated with choice? Let them decide for you.

    When i am in the bread aisle, do you think I consider the labels on each loaf before making a fully informed decision? Heck no! The aisle stretches all the way down the supermarket! I’d be there all day! Ain’t nobody got time for that! I apply the rules: I know myself. I know I like to stay away from white bread because I heard that it was not so healthy. Bam. I’ve that’s two-thirds of my choices eliminated right there. After that, I really don’t give a crap what type of bread I end up with, so long as it holds my sandwiches together. After that, I just look for the sale signs. Usually there will be two or three, which won’t least such a paralyzing choice. I might add that this was also a side benefit of having been a vegetarian for two years: Making decisions at restaurants is so much easier when one voluntarily eliminates all of the meat choices.

    People throughout history have invented clever ways to limit their choices. Before petitioning the government to forcefully redistribute other people’s wealth, try flipping a coin. Try Eenie Meenie Miney Moe. Roll a die. Give it a try. Have you ever rolled a d20? Why not try a set of D&D dice from I guarantee you, you’ll never have to make a choice again so long as you live. If you can’t decide which set of dice to buy, the go with the cheapest set. They’ll all work the same.

The last thing you should do, in my opinion, is call upon the government to forcibly remove everyone’s choices, especially from those who know how to handle them.


One Response to Barry Schwartz: Analysis paralysis and the ‘paradox of choice’ justify wealth redistribution

  1. Bryan says:

    I hear you. I liked his talk up to that point where he planted a slippery little seed called Socialism type dictatorship that limits us to 5 choices for everything. I liked it, but I would rather it be voluntary, like how Apple reduces choice by being so dominant and popular that all I have to do is go in and I will come out happy, because the product has a proven track record of success and happiness in its consumers. I bought my Mac from a refurbished place that only had 4 laptops to chose from. I still suffered, but got out in one piece somewhat happy. I did long for the qualities of the Macbook Air. If I never knew about the Air, I would be even more pleased with my mac pro. Evolutionarily speaking, choice seemed to be quite constrained. We woke up, we got busy getting water, food, and shelter. Our food, what was nearest and could be grown or raised with the meager surroundings. Maybe that was 15 foods or 30. I think we have thousands of choices of food variations. Why do I keep leaning towards the simple life where I see only one woman, or a hand full and I just get busy growing, herding, building, fetching water. I’m glad you wrote what you did. Barry’s redistribution of wealth was hastily thrown in the end, no qualifiers or consideration to the impact of such a statement. The rest of his speech and research seemed to have much more time invested. I just thought it was sloppily done, as much as you would expect for how dismal his outfit choice was. I could hardly wear that at home alone. Cheers

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