At over a decade old, Barry Schwartz's 2004 The Paradox of Choice definitely shows its age in some ways. CD players appear in example shopping problems. Movie rental stores are mentioned. Researchers have found it difficult to replicate the results of some of the cited studies. And yet, if you've ever found yourself agonizing over what should be simple decisions--which sweater should I buy? How should I spend my weekend? What should I order at this restaurant?--the book still might have something to offer you.
Schwartz argues that much of our discontent--both as consumers and as modern citizens--stems from a tendency he calls maximizing, that is, a kind of obsession with finding and making the perfect choice. Somewhere out there, maximizers tell themselves, there is the perfect sweater, the correct weekend plans, the platonic ideal of a restaurant order. The thought of picking the "wrong" one, even if it is objectively still pretty darn good, haunts them, and so maximizers must expend tremendous energy locating and evaluating all options, with no room for error.
Even after taking the plunge and purchasing that cardigan, spending that weekend, or eating that dinner, regrets linger: was a better sweater overlooked somewhere? Could Saturday have gone better? Should you have maybe ordered the gnocchi instead? All of that time spent deciding cannot guard against these doubts, but instead fuels them. The slightest problem with any decision outcome ("Oh hey, this sweater is pilling a little") hints that maybe it was the wrong choice. Or watching someone else enjoy a different decision outcome ("Susan sure does seem to be enjoying that soup") leads to a nagging suspicion that they were the one who found the holy grail of perfection.
(Schwartz notes that nobody is a maximizer in all areas of life; someone who happily buys the first shirt they see could also spend tense minutes agonizing over their options at a buffet. But there are degrees of maximizing, and some people certainly do it more than others.)
As more and more products crowd our shelves, our options multiply, and our tendency to maximize seems to increase. After all, if your grocery store carries 25 kinds of facial tissue, it stands to reason that one of those 25 must be the perfect facial tissue just for you, the ideal balance of soft and strong, with the box color that will tie the whole room together. Whereas a shelf with only four options might not engender much internal debate, this vast array of glorified nose rags can send you on a one-person voyage into decision paralysis and doubt.
The solution Schwartz proposes still sounds radical in a society that worships consumerism, freedom, and individuality: settle.
On the other end of the maximizer spectrum, Schwartz describes the "sufficers." These are people who, rather than spend a day driving from store to store to locate that ultimate cardigan, are not afraid to simply go with the first option that meets all of their needs. Because they aim for what is "good enough" rather than what is best, they spend less time on internal debates, less time doubting their final choice, and more time simply enjoying their lives. They are also less likely to compare their decision outcomes to those of other people, meaning less jealousy and insecurity.
"But wait!" cries the maximizer within you. "Surely that means they wind up making inferior choices."
Schwartz allows that this may be possible, but on the other hand, what is the larger goal of any decision? If a maximizer (after days of internal strife) picks a stupendous car but can't drive it without wondering if there might have been another sedan even more stupendous, is that person better off than a sufficer contentedly driving a car that is perfectly fine? Simply put, do we aim for perfection or happiness?
Schwartz would tell us those are two very different options. Choose wisely...