Published on Tuesday, April 13, 2004 by the Cape Cod Times
'The Tyranny of Choice'?
by Sean Gonsalves
"It" is practically an article of faith. Some consider the idea something like a self-evident truth. Judging by the tidal wave of commercials we're hit with every single day of our lives, it's evident that the marketing minions of Madison Avenue swear by "it."
Cable TV owes its very existence to our fetish with it. The fashion industry is fueled by it.
And if our politicians are to have even the appearance of legitimacy, they must glorify it in rhetoric, if not always in reality.
"It," of course, is choice. Pro-choice. School choice. Buyer's choice.
Because free will is the very thing that makes us human, we naturally assume choice is a good thing. And from there, it's logical, perhaps, to think that because having options is good, the more choice we have the better.
Well, stop the presses. Scientific American is reporting that recent research "strongly suggests" that, psychologically speaking, that assumption is wrong.
In an article titled, 'The Tyranny of Choice', Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College, wrote: "Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less."
Schwartz, who is also the author of "Maximizing Versus Satisficing: Happiness is a Matter of Choice," points to studies by David Myers of Hope College and Robert Lane of Yale University, who conducted surveys on individual well-being.
They found that increased choice and increased influence have been accompanied by a decrease in well-being.
"As the gross domestic product more than doubled in the past 30 years, the proportion of the population describing itself as 'very happy' declined by about 5 percent, or some 14 million people," Schwartz writes.
And more Americans are clinically depressed than at any other time in our history. Schwartz is quick to point out that no single factor explains America's blues. However, "a number of findings indicate that the explosion of choice plays an important role."
Schwartz conducted his own research and, in doing so, categorizes his subjects into "maximizers" and "satisficers."
Maximizers are "those who always aim to make the best possible choice" and satisficers are "those who aim for 'good enough'."
Through Schwartz's study, it was found that maximizers are the least happy. "Naturally, no one can check every option, but maximizers strive toward that goal, and so making a decision becomes increasingly daunting as the number of choices rises.
"In the end, they are more likely to make better objective choices than satisficers but get less satisfaction from them," Schwartz writes.
There's several factors that explain why more choice is not always better than less, especially for maximizers - one being what economists call "opportunity costs," which is to say that any given choice can't be assessed in isolation from the alternatives.
So, the cost of choosing 'A' is the loss of opportunity that would have come if you had chosen 'B'.
Then there's adaptation, which is simply the human propensity to get used to things. And as a result of adaptability most things turn out to be not quite as good as expected.
Add to that the effort many of us invest in the decisions we make and you've got a recipe for unhappiness. For example, "spending four months deciding what car stereo to buy is not so bad if you really enjoy that stereo for 15 years. But if you end up being excited by it for six months and then adapting, you may feel like a fool for having put in all the effort."
It appears Mom was right - too much of anything isn't good - even choice. Of course, we have to distinguish between meaningful choices and trivial concerns, but Schwartz's research shouldn't be dealt with too lightly.
After all, at a time when "free trade" and "globalization" are held up as goods of the highest order, Schwartz's insight can help us begin to understand why some people say: "No thanks. I'd rather be happy."
And that's something that not even a year's worth of columns by Thomas "You-Idiots-Just-Don't-Understand-Economics" Sowell could change.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist.
Copyright © Cape Cod Times