Book Review – “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz

I had read this book around four years ago, and had liked it. So posting a review of the book on this blog has been on my list for a while now.

The full title of the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction) makes the author’s thesis / proposal pretty clear. Anyway, here is a passage from the book that contains the key theme:

“Freedom and autonomy are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefitting from it psychologically.”

Chapter 5- The Paradox of Choice

This engagingly written, semi-academic book on consumer psychology brings in new insights into impact of excessive choices available to consumers in terms of speed of decision making (and whether a decision is made at all), and the statisfaction with the decision after it is made. The book also looks at two types of people – the ‘maximizers’ and the ‘satisficers’ in the context of decision making (when faced with many choices).

The gist is as follows:

  • The universal assumption that more choice is always better is not correct.
  • When people are given too many choices, they get paralyzed and often don’t make any decision. Shwartz quotes multiple studies to support his theory.
    [One such example: At a luxury food store, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes, there were six different flavors to choose from. At other times, there were 24. People could taste the jam before they purchased it. The sales when there were six flavours to choose from were singnificantly higher than when there were 24 flavours (subsequently there have been doubts expressed on the design of the experiment, sampling and possibility of random variation and other factors that may explain the difference)]
  • When we make a decision after evaluating many choices, we are more likely to be unhappy/ anxious about our decision, than if we had fewer choices to evaluate.
    [Example: Students from a photography course were allowed to keep one of their prints. Half of the students were later allowed to change the print they had earlier selected, the other half were not given such a choice. Even though very few of the students who were permitted a trade actually exchanged the print they had had earlier selected, the group that was not given an option to trade was happier with their print than the group that was given a second choice]
  • Decison making is a stressfull process, and when there are too many choices, the stress and anxiety levels increase (reviewer’s note: maybe that is why pre-plated meals are so popular!), during the decision making process and after it.
  • There are two types people – the ‘maximizers’ and the ‘satisficers’.
  • Maximizers try to take the best decision, and they try to make sure that they have evaluated all possible options. Maximizers tend to be slow in decision making and are more anxious about their choice even after the decison is made.
  • Satisficers make their decision as soon as they find an option that is satisfactory and stop looking at other choices. They normally do not keep validating that their decision was the right one. They are less stressed during and after their decision making.
  • Shwartz also provides some practical steps to derive more satisfaction from the choices that we make.

The book presents a new way of looking at decision making. Though availability of choices is empowering to the decision maker, too many choices are paralyzing, time-consuming, stressful, and eventually disatisfying. Excessive choices is a phenomenon of the developed nations in the West and this phenomenon is slowly spreading to all parts of the world. Shwatrz makes a plea to increase the choices for ‘have nots’ and reduce them for the ‘haves’, so that everyone is happier. The book does not say how to determine the right number of choices.

The book is written in a mix of academic and racy/ popular styles. Also, many of the concepts are repeated with multiple examples. In spite of that the book is engrossing and engaging.

I strongly recommend at least one read of the book to following professionals – they can keep the principles in mind while providing choices to their managers, staff, and customers:

  • Product and service designers
  • Process designers
  • HR Policy makers
  • Marketing/ Sales folk

The book is available in multiple formats (you have to make a decision :-)!) at Amazon.com, Amazon.in, and Flipkart. The book should be equally readable in all the formats – I read the paperback format.

About the author

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. In addition to the Paradox of Choice, he has authored/ co-authored many other books like Psychology of Learning and Behavior and The Costs of Living. He frequently publishes editorials in the New York Times applying his research in psychology to current events.

Here are some details, if you want to get a copy of the book:

Paradox of Choice Book Cover
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (How the Culture of Abundance Robs us of Satisfaction)

Author: Barry Schwartz

Publishing Date: 2004

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Formats Available In: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, Audio

Available at: Amazon.com, Amazon.in, and Flipkart

You can also view this 20 min video where the author Barry Schwartz explains the concepts in the book in his TED talk (uploaded on youtube):

The book is available at: Amazon.com, Amazon.in, and Flipkart

Other book reviews uploaded on the same blog:

Please feel free to share your views, experiences or queries, using the “comments” feature available.

Notes:

Nothing Official About It! – The views presented above are in no manner reflective of the official views of any organization, community, group, institute, or association. They may not even be the official views of the author of this post :-).


I am Rajesh Naik. I am an author, management consultant and trainer, helping IT and other tech companies improve their processes and performance. I also specialize in CMMI® (DEV and SVC), People CMM® and Balanced Scorecard. I am a CMMI Institute certified/ authorized Instructor and Lead Appraiser for CMMI® and People CMM®. I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. For more information please click here. To get email alerts for new posts, click here to subscribe.

15 thoughts on “Book Review – “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz”

  1. Awesome, Rajesh.

    The inability to make decisions when faced with a plethora of choices (paralysis) is a very true phenomenon.

    In the consumerist society where every service/product delivery comes with an array of choices, the consumer does experience the entire gamut of emotions and impacts- from confusion over what to choose to agony over choices not made. I like the ‘satisficer’ concept though, since this explains aptly my frequently used personal approach.

    This book seems to provide an excellent contrarian perspective to the hypothesis more the choice more the satisfaction (derived from freedom to choose).

    Thanks for summarizing the key messages from the book…..and since as you indicated, this book was published a few years back, I am hoping that there are not too many books and authors propagating this thesis now…and as a reader I dont need to choose on which book to read for a start:)

    Prakash

    1. Hi Prakash,

      Thanks.

      If you are truly a ‘satisficer’, the thought – “hoping that there are not too many books and authors propagating this thesis now” is meaningless.

      As a satisficer, it is a simple decision to be made — “do I want this book or not”? If yes, then buy, if no, then forget it – this is my thought process, maybe as an ‘extremely minimalist satisficer’.

      Thanks once again.

      Rajesh

  2. Hi Rajesh,

    This is one of the first TED talks I had listened to. If I remember right, it was mentioned by you in some forum. It is an excellent talk, and I guess the book will only expand with relevant studies and examples.

    But I have observed that the two types of people (w.r.t. making choices) is not a very simplistic delineation. I have behaved differently in different contexts, especially dependent on the product/ service category and the money I have to shell out for it.

    Thoughts?

    Regards
    Deepayan

    1. Hi Deepayan,

      Good to read your comment.

      And you are absolutely right – our behaviour keeps changing depending on the context. For example, one may be a quick decision maker / ‘satisficer’ when no other stakeholders are involved (purely personal decisions), and an exteremely guarded person/ ‘maximizer’ when many stakeholders are involved (e.g., decision making in an organizational role). I believe that we behave differently in different contexts (and with different people), not just in decision making but in other aspects too.

      Thanks and regards

      Rajesh

  3. Deepayan has brought in a different and relevant perspective.

    While one’s response to choices could be driven by the context in which choices are made, yet I feel, somewhere deep within one has a predominant behavioral disposition when it comes to making decisions.

    My wife for one, exhibits an agonizing maximizer instinct on to every decision. I find myself fluctuating between what Rajesh calls the minimal satisficer and satisficer.

    By the way, I am curious to know what instinct Deepayan displayed when choosing between London, Bangalore, Delhi as his place of residence.

    Cheers
    Prakash

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