Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz

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Choice is good, but too much choice? Not so much. That’s the central message of the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. As humans, we love options. We want the perfect-fitting pants, the most qualified doctor–even the trendiest water bottle. But do all these choices leave us more satisfied with what we end up with … or less so?

Read this sociology classic to spur some self-reflection and decide what’s important to get just right in life, and what you’re better off making peace with as is.

Key Takeaways

  • There are lots and lots of problems with choice. One is that when we think about past experiences, it’s hard for us to remember them objectively. What we recall is almost entirely made up of two moments: the peak and the end. If these points were particularly good, we think of the experience as good, even if much of the rest of it wasn’t. (Think of the last trip you took that you raved about to your friends on social media: was it really as much fun as you thought it was?)
  • Another reason it’s difficult to make good choices is that we think we want more variety than we actually do. In one study, people who were told to choose their snacks ahead of time overestimated their desire for variety when they would have gotten more pleasure from choosing their favorites more often.
  • Another problem with choice: We greatly prefer brands we’re more familiar with, which skews our decisions towards them unfairly. This is why commercials have memorable songs and why radio stations play same the ads over and over, ad nauseum.
  • People are also suckers for something called “anchoring.” This is when companies purposely offer us relatively poorer quality or more expensive options so that we have something to compare the better option (the one they wanted us to buy anyway) to.
  • Frames are another type of anchor. Frames are a way marketers turn a neutral quality or even a drawback into a desirable attribute by framing it in the context of a comparison. Have you ever wondered why clothes are always on sale? The original price is the frame marketers place around the item of clothing.
  • Loss aversion also trips us up when trying to make a decision. This is the phenomenon whereby the experience of loss brings a much more powerful negative reaction inside us than the experience of gain brings us a positive reaction. Most people feel much worse about losing fifty dollars than they feel good about gaining $150. Many poor decisions, such as the decision to hang on to bad investments, costly possessions and unneeded items around the house, are due to loss aversion.
  • Three final reasons choice is bad: first, choice brings greater expectations for whatever you end up choosing. Post-decision regret as well as anticipatory regret show up before and after a decision is made. Second, choice is overwhelming. Many of us expend far too much of our limited emotional resources on it, and decision paralysis can even set in. And finally, choice is bad because of adaptation. Most of the time, people underestimate how soon they will start taking their purchase–such as their new car–for granted and end up with very little to no enjoyment as compared to their previous item.

About the Author

Barry Schwartz is an American psychologist, author, and professor. He is best known for his work on the intersection of psychology, economics, and philosophy, particularly in the areas of decision-making, happiness, and practical wisdom. His academic research focuses on the impact of choice and decision-making on human well-being. In addition to The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz has written Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (co-authored with Kenneth Sharpe) and Why We Work. As a professor, Schwartz has taught at Swarthmore College and later at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a professor of psychology.


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