Is more choice necessarily a good thing? Tessa Stuart reviews Barry Schwartz's latest book, which asks why we make our lives so complex.
Hunting a shampoo for my fussy teenage daughter while shopping recently, I was brought up short by the extraordinary proliferation of haircare products and variants.
I suddenly froze, unable to make a quick choice, wondering if I would miss out by choosing the wrong bottle. I found myself resenting the ambitious product managers whose decisions to introduce all these brand extensions had no doubt enhanced their CVs, but complicated my life.
Its getting ridiculous, I thought, we have far too much choice nowadays. Our freedom to choose is becoming a stress, not a solution.
Barry Schwartz, an American social scientist, describes this in his intelligent and thought-provoking book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. He sets out how everyday decisions — buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, choosing the right broadband supplier — have become increasingly complex due to an overwhelming abundance of choice.
More complex decisions: what career to pursue, when to marry, to have children or not, get put off because to make a decision in one direction closes off others which might have been better. We all know people in their thirties who are still flailing about. The societal constraints that prevailed on our parents to get married, get a proper job, and have children have been eroded by our societys cult of individualism. Too much choice, far from creating human happiness, is acting to its detriment.
Schwartz uses psychological and behavioural economics research studies to show that none of us are very rational about decisions. As more decisions need to be made, the likelihood that we will get some of them wrong increases. With personal autonomy venerated, to get it wrong becomes a personal shortcoming.
An abundance of options makes us feel that the best must be out there if we look hard enough. Yet, even when we get the desired object, because of a ubiquitous feature of human psychology known as adaptation, we get used to it, and take it for granted. Before we know it, we want the next big thing. Schwartz categorises us broadly as either:
- Maximisers, who aspire to get the best, make big investments in decisions and agonise about trade-offs
- Satisficers, for whom good enough is fine
Maximisers make a lot of product comparisons before and after buying, take longer over it, and are more likely to feel less positive and even regretful after their purchases. They want everything they do to be just right, which can lead to trying on not just many clothes, but many partners too, in the endless quest for the perfect fit.
They tend to suffer from high expectations, to self-blame, and are inclined to pessimism. When their high expectations are not met, they can end up depressed.
Satisficers, in contrast, set themselves purchasing criteria, and, as soon as these are met, go ahead and buy the item. They do not torment themselves by worrying that there might be a better one round the corner. They are content with the merely excellent, rather than the maximisers absolute best.
Schwartz makes a persuasive argument for us all to become satisficers. He suggests that we choose when to choose, which choices in our lives really matter, and focus our time and energy there. We then have more time for the things that are genuinely enriching, time with friends and family.
We should practice an attitude of gratitude, be grateful for how much better things are than they might be, rather than obsessing about how life could be better. Controlling our high expectations of items and events, curtailing the amount of social comparison of ourselves with others that we do, making our decisions non-reversible, and anticipating adaptation, that the thing we most wanted last year we will take for granted this year, are all part of being a successful satisficer.
So what does this mean for brands? Research from Stamford Business School suggests that brands that offer too much choice can turn consumers off completely. Ill go along with that — I never did buy that shampoo.
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004