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Thursday, January 22, 2004

NY Times: Choice Is Bad

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, penned an article for today's New York Times op-ed section warning against the pitfalls of too much choice:

[T]here is growing evidence that the emotional logic (the psycho-logic) is deeply flawed. Indeed, for many people, increased choice can lead to a decrease in satisfaction. Too many options can result in paralysis, not liberation.

You may want to think of this as the "Moscow on the Hudson" syndrome; in that movie, a Russian refugee has an anxiety attack when asked to go to an American supermarket for coffee ... and sees an entire aisle of choices. In fact, Schwartz uses similar examples when making his case:

• Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, psychologists at Columbia and Stanford respectively, have shown that as the number of flavors of jam or varieties of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate goes up. ...

• In a study that Ms. Iyengar, Rachel Elwork of Columbia and I are working on, we found that as the number of job possibilities available to college graduates goes up, applicants' satisfaction with the job search process goes down.

Why did the Times decide to print this today, or at all? Well, this isn't just an exercise in psychology, as the beginning of the article demonstrates:

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush elaborated on a theme that is near to his heart: the virtues of personal choice.

"Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account," the president said. "We should make the Social Security system a source of ownership for the American people." Mr. Bush also made clear that "any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors, or to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare, will meet my veto."

Schwartz argues that more personal choice decreases the quality of life, causing anxiety and depression. People are happier, he says, when choices are limited and responsibility for decision-making processes rest elsewhere than completely on the individual. In Schwartz's view, the sense of missed opportunities puts too great of a stress on an individual, who will likely second-guess their decisions and always wonder if they would have been better off with different decisions.

Schwartz's solution -- no bonus points for you if you saw this coming -- is to reduce or eliminate choices, especially in government-entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Nothing better encapsulates latter-day liberalism (which means socialism, as opposed to classic liberalism) than this condescending and patronizing pop-psychology fingerwagging. Choice makes some people miserable, so the solution is to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator so that we can make sure everyone is equally miserable. You can't decide on a jam when you have 24 choices? Let's make only six varieties so everyone can feel good about themselves. Unable to analyze various medical plans to determine what's best for you? No problem -- let the experts in the government come up with a single plan. Too many investment choices? Let's fix it so that there is only one government-controlled investment choice; that way if it tanks, everyone is equally damaged.

All of this mischief comes from a misunderstanding of equality. To most people, it means equality of opportunity and treatment, but to the left, it means equality of results, and that is the essence of socialism. It's not that we wouldn't like to see everyone get rewarded equally, but not everyone has equal talent, not all talent is fully realized or even fully utilized, and not all production has equal value. Use jam as an example: most people might be satisfied with only six flavors of jam and may never try all 24. That does not mean that most people wouldn't enjoy more choice or prefer a flavor not included in someone's arbitrary selection of the six "allowed" flavors. And in the case of Social Security, the single "choice" given is mandatory extraction of a healthy chunk of individual income placed in a fund that will not even pay back the principal deposited, much less keep up with inflation or grow in any way.

The research Schwartz sites applies more to retail marketing than it does to public policy, and the Times' publication of this paternalistic propaganda reveals their sympathy to socialism. (Certainly you will have never seen the phrase "choice tyrannizes people more than it liberates them" in a Times article on abortion, where "choice" arguably equals the ability to kill another individual.) It's designed to appeal to those who are willing to surrender their freedom for the illusion of comfort and tranquility. For me, I'd much rather second-guess myself than allow others to dictate a paucity of options based on their opinion of what's best for me.

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09:58 AM in Culture | Permalink


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I once counted 216 different branded varieties and flavors of yogurt in the Pathmark dairy case.

Posted by: The Commissar at Jan 22, 2004 3:02:14 PM

216 varieties? You must be really depressed, or really anxious, Comrade. You should put your feet up and purge a few Trotskyites, just for some relaxation.

Posted by: Captain Ed at Jan 22, 2004 3:35:52 PM

It's kinda funny in a way how people get depressed when they are controlled and given as much choice as possible. You would think it would be just the opposite of the effect.

Posted by: Todd Johnson at Jan 22, 2004 6:30:57 PM

It is a pity that the author of the NYT article never experienced any truly limited choices offered by the glorious socialism, such as one (not six, let's not be extravagant here) jar of jam a month to be purchased by coupon rations.

Or a state sponsored car lottery (you want a car - a Trabant- you pay money and enter a pool. You may win this year, next year, or ten years down the line, if lucky).

Or the most wonderful choices in housing: you live with your parents and a spouse and a kid in a 50 sq feet apartment while waiting 25 years for your own 50 sq feet place that the state graciously will allow you to purchase when you come to the top of the waiting list.

Unfortunately, for unexplained reasons inhabitants of socialists countries really did not appreciate their blessing and mostly got rid of the socialism. But all is not lost. There is still Cuba and North Korea for those who want to experience first hand the psychological benefits of limited choices. Please, do yourselves and rest of us a favor: go and stay there.

Posted by: Katherine at Jan 22, 2004 8:41:53 PM

I don't doubt that many people are uncomfortable making choices, but that is a symptom of a greater problem: people are afraid to be held accountable for their choices, even if it's a choice about jelly! Perhaps part of the problem is that the left has politicized everyday life choices so thoroughly that many people see each and every decision as a moment they must demonstrate their fealty to political correctness. After all, the grapes in the grape jelly may have been picked by workers oppressed by the Bush administrations' labor policies!

Posted by: dave at Jan 23, 2004 9:47:46 AM

Assuming that these studies are correct, the finding is that having fewer choices leads to more sales and more satisfaction with a particular purchase, while more choice leads to more satisfaction with the search process (albeit with fewer sales and less satisfaction with the purchase decision). People are more attracted by a larger choice, but less likely to end up buying and not as satisfied with the final purchase when they do buy.

This finding has to be correlated with the fact that typical retail stores are filled with choices. Presumably the stores have an empirical basis for this, and presumably the degree of choice offered in a typical store is optimized to maximize sales.

So why would people prefer stores with a large degree of choice vs stores with less choice, when less choice has been (presumably) demonstrated to lead to more sales for a particular product?

Part of this must be that providing more choice makes the shopping experience more pleasant, so people choose to patronize stores that give them a more pleasuable shopping experince. The shopping pleasure is a short-term satisfaction, while the reduced pleasure in the purchase is long-term, so people might well trade off these satisfactions by shopping at stores with a lot of variety.

Stores might also have to offer a wide variety in order to provide a "complete experience" to their customers. It is very annoying to go to a supermarket to buy some specific brand/product and find that they don't carry it, when you are not willing to accept any of the alternatives that they do offer. You have to then go to another store, and in the future are more likely to go to that store, especially if it carries acceptable alternatives to the other products you normally purchase.

As part of providing a complete solution, many visits to a store do not involve making choices, or at least not making many choices. A shopper often knows exactly what they need, and are trying to maximize the productivity of their shopping time.

Stores with a larger selection might have smaller sales per visit, but a larger customer base and more frequent visits. It would be interesting to see if there are some statistics on this. Actually, there are bulk retail stores optimized on the basis of fewer items and large quantities, and thus serve a particular segment of the market.

The conclusion is that having a wide variety of products provides a more pleasuable short-term experience, maximizes the size of the customer base, and maximizes the number of people finding a "complete solution". Stores with a smaller number of choices are thus not optimal for a significant market segment.

It would appear that when making a choice for one particular need, a limited palette is superior. When making choices to satisfy a collection of needs, or to draw people into a store in the first place, a larger selection is superior.

It is hard to see from all this how the NY Times can come to the conclusion that choice is bad :-)

Posted by: Tim Lundeen at Jan 31, 2004 2:03:29 PM