Sunday, March 06, 2011
The Paradox of Choice
Tyranny of Choice: Provocative theory in social psychology, advanced by Dr. Barry Schwartz, who argued from a wealth of observational data that the abundance of choice in the modern world makes people stressed, unhappy, ill, and indecisive. The compelling importance of this fact was unfortunately not noticed by his publisher, who produced Schwartz's book on the topic in paperback, hardback, coffee table size, pop up book, DVD, and on a podcast. Faced with these confusing choices, the public may someday actually read his work, as soon they make up their minds.
Choices have exponentially expanded with technological progress, and so has human dissatisfaction. Although we have access to goods and services that surpass anything envisioned by our parents, we are still unsatisfied. Compared to our lives in generations past, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and stress has increased in lockstep with our material progress[i]. Although we are effectively more in control of our lives than ever before, our self control has declined, and with the resulting sense of helplessness comes a sense of ennui, dissatisfaction, and despair[ii]. Indeed, it is not the stuff, but how stuff influences our decisions, and we can’t make any, and rue the day for many of the choices we eventually make. Social psychologists think they have the answer. Since the touchstone of our society is our greater material affluence, somehow it is how all that affluence influences decision that is at fault. Affluence underscores options, and when wealth trends to infinity, so do our choices. With infinite choices come indecision, stress, and regret as no decision is good enough in lieu of our apprehension of alternatives lost. That’s a bad thing, and for many social psychologists, the obvious thing. And experiment seems to bear them out. When faced with many options, people are reluctant to make decisions, and when they do they are often stressed and later regretful.
This argument is expounded in Barry Schwartz’s book ‘The Paradox of Choice’[iii], wherein the author lays out the expansive empirical evidence of his position, and the logical conclusion that happiness comes from knowing and accepting our limitations. And that means limiting our choices. Is he right? Well, yes and no. Sometimes choice makes for indecision and unhappiness, sometimes it doesn’t, and why this is so is anyone’s guess. That at least was the conclusion of Benjamin Scheibehenne and colleagues, who performed a ‘meta-analysis’ of fifty studies on choice overload, and concluded that they “could not reliably identify sufficient conditions that explain when and why an increase in assortment size will decrease satisfaction, preference strength, or the motivation to choose[iv].”
Part of the problem is due to the fact that there are many different cognitive antecedents to choice overload, and as Chernov and colleagues noted in commentary on the Scheibehenne paper, “simply searching for a main effect across all conditions and a single “sufficient” condition that is likely to solely predict this effect is not informative”[v]. These may reflect the decision maker’s expertise, the composition and the organization of the assortment, and the nature of the decision task. More specifically, choice is constantly narrowed or attenuated through non-conscious mental processes that discard redundant information and the use of heuristic strategies to attenuate choice, but this is countered by the fact that affective processes in decision making may supplant choice with the mere apprehension of choice, and may render rational decision making difficult or impossible.
For example, place ourselves in uptown Manhattan, and as a neophyte we would be overwhelmed with choices of things to see and do. Live there for a few years, and the debilitating static of choice is blocked as we habitually follow routine in our day to day behavior. Besides the non-conscious processes underlying habit, evaluating a choice imparts information that successively reduces the informative value of successive choices similarly considered. That is, the marginal or added utility of considering alternatives falls as we consider more and more choices. We therefore naturally limit choices because considering more of them will not add any new information. Thus, we may refrain from getting more than three bids for a project, reading three movie reviews on the same film, or getting two medical opinions on the advisability of a medical procedure because evaluating more choices would be of little marginal value. Attenuating choice is further expedited through the use of technology. Want to get the best deal, the best product, and even the best date? Now we have expert systems mediated by the web that can tell us in a heartbeat what choice is best for us. We can in a sense offload our decision making to avatars, expert systems that learn from our previous choices and can navigate a world of infinite abundance. We also can act like ‘experts’ in our own right by using heuristics or rule of thumb strategies to make effective choices. Indeed, common heuristic techniques are not second best strategies to make choices, and generally result in decisions as good as those dependent upon complex statistical or logical models[vi].
On the other hand, the fact that decision making has an affective component can put a decision on ‘hold’ merely because of the fact that considering options can be a pleasant thing. For example, that men generally abhor shopping for clothing means that when they do shop they get to the point and isolate the characteristics they desire, and then purchase the item without a second thought. Women on the other hand can spend an entire day perusing a thousand items that are only marginally distinguishable. However, to say that women are paralyzed by choice is a misnomer, as they are generally ‘delighted’ with choice and are happy to take their time before finally making a purchase, while men would prefer to go home and watch the football game rather than ‘delighting’ in perusing infinite variations of French cuffs. Indeed, the mere apprehension of choice is often a pleasurable thing. Having a thousand different shirts, jams, wines, or mates to choose from may not make for fast decisions, but getting to those decisions can be fun. Of course choice may not be all that pleasant, as an affective choice may contrast with a rational alternative, thus making an evaluation as difficult as comparing apples to oranges. Eating a snack or dieting, checking your social network or working, or sleeping an extra hour rather then rising early are contrasting choices that are difficult and stressful to make.
Ultimately, the pain and regret due to indecision and decisions gone wrong does not point to a surfeit of choices, but rather to a lack of information that allows us to evaluate choices, the positive affect that comes from merely apprehending choice, and a natural inability to decide between affective and informative events that leads to stress and later regret. In other words, it may be difficult to make choices or be emotionally content with choices made because of a lack of information that allows us to mediate between alternatives, or because affect makes indecision a pleasant thing that vanishes with choice or an unpleasant thing that occurs concurrently (stress) subsequently (regret) to a choice.
So we remain left with our question, does exponentially expanding choice correlate with indecision, regret, and unhappiness? It is here that we agree with Schwartz’s conclusions, but not his explanations. Correlation is underscored by causality when the separate diminishing and rising roles of utility and novelty are considered in decision making. When choices are unlimited, the predicted utility of considering each separate option results in a decrease in the predicted utility of evaluating the next option, but the affective ‘utility’ or incentive salience of each considered option does not fall to zero, and always has a constant positive incentive value. In other words, affect predominates when we have and subsequently make too many choices, as considering more choices has diminishing marginal utility but not a corresponding diminishing affective utility. Thus to check one movie review or one model car is both informative and affective with the added or marginal degree of new information falling with each successive review or automobile we consider, but the novelty remains significant even though we have little to glean from the twentieth review or vehicle we consider. When we look back to a day of such ill considered choices, we see no return for our efforts in contrast to more rational alternatives forgone, and are understandably regretful at a day misspent. Thus making too many choices can indeed increase choice tyranny and the indecision, tension, and regret that accompanies it, but it is often due to a rise in the role of ‘affectiveness’ in choosing that causes a reduction in the effectiveness in choosing.
[i] David Myers-American Paradox, Spiritual hunger in an age of plenty
[ii] Robert Lane- The loss of happiness on market democracies
[iii] Schwartz, Barry- The Paradox of Choice
[iv] Scheibehenne, B, Greifeneder, R, Todd, P. (2010) “Can there ever be too many choices? A meta-analytic review of choice overload”, Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 409-425
[v] Chernev, A., Bockenholt, U., Goodman, J. (2010) Commentary on Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, and Todd. Choice Overload: Is There Anything to It?, Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 426-428