"As Americans, we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression." -- Barry Schwartz











In his book The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz, Professor of Social Theory and Social action at Swathmore College, explains at what point choice--the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that Americans cherish--becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being.

Choices. We're surrounded by them. Whether we're trying to pick out a new pair of jeans, shopping for car insurance, getting groceries, selecting a long-distance phone carrier, ordering a cup of coffee, or even deciding which spiritual path to follow, we're faced with a staggering amount of options. Just this weekend, my husband and I were shopping for a new dryer to replace the one that gave up the ghost. The amount of dryers was dizzying; they even had digital dryers! Like I jokingly told the salesman, when I do laundry, I don't want to have to do mathematical equations to figure out what numbers to key in...I just want to dry my freakin' clothes!

The author contends that it's crucial for us to feel like we're in control, but in the face of so many options, is the process of selection back-firing on us?

Schwartz contends that it is. In accessible, engaging, and anecdotal prose, the author shows how the dramatic explosion of choice--from the mundane to the profound--has paradoxically become a problem instead of a solution. He tells the story of how he used to be able to go into a store and just get a pair of jeans. Being one to wear his jeans until they fall apart, he finally went to the store to get a new pair. A salesperson walked up to him and asked him if she could help. "I want a pair of jeans--32-38", he said. She proceeds to ask him if he wants them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy? Stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Buttton-fly or zipper fly? Faded or regular?

He was stunned. He sputtered that he just wanted regular jeans...you know, the kind that used to be the only kind? Schwartz then begins a mission to find out the range of choice for Americans. He goes on to list some pretty eye-opening statistics. For example, in his local supermarket, he found 285 varieties of cookies. Just the chocolate-chip cookies alone had 21 options! At his local electronics store, he counted 85 different telephones, not including cell phones. Even shopping for colleges has become an intellectual shopping mall.

And speaking of malls, did you know that Americans go to shopping centers about once a week, more often than they go to houses of worship? American now has more shopping centers than high schools. However, when asked to rank the pleasure they get from various activities, grocery shopping ranks next to last, and other shopping fifth from the bottom.

People are shopping more, but enjoying it less. But why? If they do enjoy it less, why do they keep doing it? This is the crux of the book, where Schwartz cites fascinating studies including Why Choice Is De-motivating. He also examines why it is that the excitement of purchasing new items seems to wear off so fast, and why we sometimes actually feel badly about our choices. For one, humans are adaptive. "Familiarity breeds contempt", as the old adage goes. But it's also the fact that we second guess ourselves after a purchase, mulling what we could have chosen, as well as asking ourselves if we really chose "the best".

Choosing "the best" is a trait of maximizers. Schwartz says that maximizers tend to be less happy than satisficers. Satisficers are those who choose with the mindset of "good enough". But because America is a culture where many seek "the best" and compare their choices and lifestyle with their neighbors and media standards, most of us are maximizers.

What are some of the qualities of a maximizer?

1. Maximizers engage in more product comparisons than satisficers, both before and after they make purchasing decisions.
2. Maximizers take longer than satisficers to decide on a purchase.
3. Maximizers spend more time than satisficers comparing their purchasing decisions to the decisions of others.
4. Maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a purchase.
5. Maximizers are more likely to spend time thinking about hypothetical alternatives to the purchases they've made.
6. Maximizers generally feel less positive about their purchasing decisions.
7. Maximizers savor positive events less than satisficers and do not cope as well (by their own admission) with negative events.
8. After something bad happens to them, maximizers' sense of well-being takes longer to recover.
9. Maximizers tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers.

Is it any wonder that we buy more, but enjoy less? What drew me to this book was because I knew that I was the type of person that obsessed over purchases, taking forever to select an item. I used to be so indecisive at a restaurant, taking 20 minutes to figure out what I wanted! What am I in the mood for? How will I feel when I eat it? What's the tastiest thing I could order? I'm much better than I was, but still... I also noticed the trend to second guess many of my purchasing decisions and wondering if I could "do better".

So when I read about this book in Parade magazine, I ordered it from Amazon.com. The great thing about The Paradox of Choice is that Schwartz synthesizes current research, and shows how eliminating choices can greatly reduce the stress, anxiety, and busyness of our lives. He even offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on those that are important and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices we have to make.

Oh, and I picked my new dryer rather easily. I knew I wanted an interior light, a manual dial, large capacity, and a signal to let me know when the clothes were done. However, my husband kept standing there with a "deer in the headlights" look. (And finally agreed with my choice.)

Do you think locking him in our bathroom with this book might help? Not a lotta choices in there, after all...

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The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More - Barry Schwartz