This article is based on a 2005 TED talk from Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. His TED talk has racked up over six million views and questions whether the choice that we think makes us free actually makes us unhappy.
All western industrial societies have an official dogma: if we are interested in maximising the welfare of their citizens, the way to do it is to maximise individual freedom.
Freedom is in itself valuable, worthwhile and essential to being human, and also because if people have freedom then everyone can decide on their own what will maximise their welfare rather than governments having to make decisions on their behalf.
How do we maximise freedom? Well, we maximise choice. The more choice that people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have. This is so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to question it.
It’s also deeply embedded in our lives. I counted 175 salad dressings in my local supermarket. There are 6.5 million stereo systems from a consumer electronics store, based on the separate components on offer. That’s a LOT of choice!
So you can get a phone with a nose hair trimmer and a crème brulee torch and it leads people to go into the store and say ‘well, do you have a phone that doesn’t do that much…’ and the answer will be NO.
Explosion of choice
There’s been an explosion of choice everywhere. No longer do US doctors tell you what to do – they say, “well we could do a) or b) and both have benefits and risks.” And you say “Doc, what should I do?” and they just repeat the benefits and risks!
And you say, “If you were me, doc, what would you do?” and the doctor says “But I’m not you.”
We call this patient autonomy, but it’s really shifting the burden from the doctor to the patient. There’s an enormous amount of marketing of prescription drugs to YOU and ME – this should be pointless because we can’t buy them – but the drug companies expect us to tell our doctors what we WANT.
Even our identity is a matter of choice. We don’t inherit an identity, we get to invent and change our identity as much as possible. Every day when you wake up you have to decide what type of person you want to be. With respect to marriage and family, there was a time when the default assumption was that you got married as soon as you could and had kids as soon as you could. The only choice was WHO. Nowadays, everything is up for grabs.
I teach very intelligent students and I assign 20% less work than I used to – it’s not because they’re less smart, and it’s not because they’re less diligent, it’s because they’re preoccupied asking themselves ‘should I get married now? Or later? Kids first? Career first?” and they will answer them whether it means failing my course or not. And these are important questions.
The choice of work
We are blessed with the technology that enables us to work every minute of every day, from any place on the planet. So we have to make the decision again and again and again about whether we should be working. We can go and watch our kid play soccer and we have our BlackBerry on one hip and our laptop on the other and every minute we’re watching our kid we are also asking ourselves, “Should I answer this? Should I respond to this email?” Even if the answer is NO, it makes the experience of your kid’s soccer game less enjoyable.
The new world we live in is one of a “do it yourself Ten Commandments kit” Is this good news or bad news? The answer is: YES
We all know what’s good about it, so I’ll talk about what’s bad about it.
The negative effects of choice
All this choice has two negative effects on people.
Firstly, it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many choices, people find it difficult to choose at all.
Here’s a dramatic example – a colleague of mine was studying investments in voluntary retirement plans and got access to investment records from Vanguard of one million employees and 2000 workplaces. She found that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, the rate of participation went down by 2%.
Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to choose you’ll just put the whole damn thing off.
This means that people will have to eat dog food when they retire, but also means the decision is so hard they pass up considerable matching money from the employer. In fact they pass up as much as $5000 a year from the employer.
Paralysis is a consequence of too much choice.
The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result than if we had fewer options to choose from. There are several reasons for this: with lots of salad dressings to choose from, if you buy one that’s not perfect – and let’s face it, which salad dressing is? – it’s easy to imagine you could have made a decision that would have been better.
And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the enjoyment you get from the decision, even if it was a good decision.
The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all about the option you chose.
Here’s a term borrowed from economics – opportunity costs. The way in which we value things depends on what we compare them too. When there are lots of alternatives to consider, it is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives you reject that make you less satisfied with the alternative you’ve chosen. Opportunity costs subject from what we’ve chosen even when what we’ve chosen is fantastic.
The more options there are to consider the more attractive features will be flagged up as opportunity costs.
Whenever you’re choosing one thing, you’re choosing not to do other things – and it’s going to make what you’re not doing more attractive.
Escalation of expectations
This hit me when I went to replace my jeans and there was a time when they came in one flavour – and they fit like crap, and if you washed them long enough they finally fit ok. I went to replace them and the shopkeeper said asked me if I wanted stonewashed, boot cut, tapered etc. My jaw dropped and after I recovered I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.”
I spent an hour trying on all the jeans and I walked out with the best jeans ever, but I felt WORSE. Why? The reason is with all these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no expectations when they came in one flavour, but when they come in loads… well, dammit, one of them should be perfect!
Adding options to peoples’ lives cannot help but INCREASE expectations about what people want.
“Everything was better back when everything was worse.”
In the ‘old days’ it was possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. The BEST you can have today is that stuff performs as you expect it to.
So the secret to happiness is LOW EXPECTATIONS.
One consequence of buying a bad fitting pair of jeans when there’s one kind is that when you are dissatisfied, the world is responsible – what could you have done in the situation? But when there are hundreds, and you buy one that’s disappointing, the answer is also YOU – with hundreds of jeans on display, there’s no excuse for failure.
The explosion of depression
When people make decisions, even when the results are good, they feel bad. Clinical depression has exploded in the last few generations – a significant contributor to this explosion of depression and suicide is that people have disappointing experiences because their expectations are so high, and when they have to explain these disappointments, they think that they themselves are at fault.
So why does choice make people miserable?
- Regret and anticipated regret
- Opportunity costs
- Escalation of expectations
So the official dogma is NOT TRUE. Some choice IS better than one, but doesn’t follow that MORE choice is better than SOME choice. We have long since moved past the point where options improve our welfare.
As a policy matter the thing to think about is:
Income redistribution will make EVERYONE better off – because it gives extra choice to those with none and takes it away from people with too much.
Everyone needs a fish bowl – the absence of a metaphysical fish bowl is a recipe for misery